Blast from the Past – Oculus Rift Prototype (2012)

Way back in 2012, John Carmack (one of the original creators of the video game “Doom”) took an interest in Palmer Luckey’s prototype for the first Oculus “Rift” headset. Carmack eventually went on to become the CTO of Oculus after Facebook acquired the technology from Palmer for $2 billion. See excerpt below from Carmack’s “A day with an Oculus Rift” (May 17, 2012):

I am going to be giving several demos in the next month, and Palmer graciously loaned me one of his test HMDs to go with the other things I have to show. Here are my impressions after a day of working with it:

When I first powered it up, it looked like the screen was badly offset, but this turned out to be a problem with the analog VGA input that Palmer had also seen before. Making a custom display mode with different horizontal timing parameters got it fixed up. The plan is for the kits to have a panel with a digital interface, which will properly resolve the issue.

The USB cable for power was also finicky – it wouldn’t work on a USB hub or over an extension cord, only plugged directly into my computer. When I put it on a bench power supply I found that I had to give it 5.2v to get it to come up, it apparently was voltage limited rather than current limited.

There still seems to be a tiny offset in either the optics or the nose cutout, because I can sometimes just glimpse the edge of the right eye view in the left eye. Interestingly, this happens when you are looking to the left with your eye, which moves it a few millimeters to the left, allowing it to look farther over to the right in peripheral vision. This is particularly distracting when the left and right sides of the view are at very different brightness levels. I experimented with different amounts of physical blanking on the lens and leaving a gap in the rendered image, but making the flash of view completely go away required giving up too much resolution. The right solution to this is to have a thin physical divider mounted directly on the display to prevent eye view crosstalk.

I measured the horizontal field of view as a bit under 90 degrees per eye (full binocular overlap), but when you first look through the lenses you clearly feel the edge of the screen on the sides. The vertical field of view is plenty, and you really have to push into the lenses to catch a glimpse of the screen edge. With only 640 pixels horizontally versus 800 vertically per eye and symmetric optics, the vertical FOV is 33% greater than the horizontal, and all of the loss is on the outside edge. I wound up covering the outside parts of the lenses with tape to block off the edges before the optics, which maintains immersion much better than seeing the edge of the screen out at the optical focal plane. This arrangement makes the best use of the limited panel resolution, but it might be better to ignore 160 scan lines and only use 1280 x 640 with a completely symmetric field of view, if that is achievable with available lenses at the same eye spacing.

Interesting commentary from Carmack in the early days of the Oculus Rift. It’s also fascinating to look at Palmer Luckey’s early progress report as he was about to launch a Kickstarter to fund development of the headset. See below for “Oculus ‘Rift’: An open-source HMD for Kickstarter” (April 15, 2012):

Hey guys,

I am making great progress on my HMD kit! All of the hardest stuff (Optics, display panels, and interface hardware) is done, right now I am working on how it actually fits together, and figuring out the best way to make a head mount. It is going to be be out of laser cut sheets of plastic that slide together and fasten with nuts and bolts. The display module is going to be detachable from the optics module, so you will be able to modify, replace, or upgrade your lenses in the future!

The goal is to start a Kickstarter project on June 1st that will end on July 1st, shipping afterwards as soon as possible. I won’t make a penny of profit off this project, the goal is to pay for the costs of parts, manufacturing, shipping, and credit card/Kickstarter fees with about $10 left over for a celebratory pizza and beer. 

I need help, though!

1) I need something that illustrates the difference between low field of view HMDs and high FOV HMDs, probably some kind of graphic illustrating the difference in apparent screen size. Would probably want to compare the rap 1200VR, the HMZ-T1, and the ST1080. Maybe throw in a few professional HMDs like the SX111 for good measure.

2) Logo/s. I am listing the organization as “Oculus”, I plan on using that name on my VR projects from here on out. The HMD itself is tentatively titled “Rift”, if you have better ideas, let me know. I based it on the idea that the HMD creates a rift between the real world and the virtual world, though I have to admit that it is pretty silly. 

3) Ideas for what I should show off in the Kickstarter video.

4) Ideas for Kickstarter rewards. The obvious one would be a full HMD kit, but I want to have some lesser monetary options for people who just want to show support. Laser cut badges? Some kind of software? On the other end, it seems like it would be a good idea to have some more expensive options that net you stuff like a wireless battery/video pack, or a motion tracker.

5) Anything else I am forgetting!

The help is appreciated! Really excited about this, I think it could be the kind of thing that jumpstarts a bigger VR community, and hopefully shows that there is a big demand for wide FOV, truly immersive displays.

Amazing how far VR has come in the past eight years! With Facebook’s launch of the new Oculus Quest 2, the era of “tethered” VR headsets will be coming to an end. Standalone (wireless) HMD’s are clearly the future of the VR ecosystem for 2021 and beyond.

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Roy Kachur is a Media Technologist, IT Architect, and VR Evangelist. He has worked in the information technology field since the 1990’s, and in the media industry since 2014. He believes that VR will play a significant role in the future of media.

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