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Gaming legend John Carmack talks VR gaming's past, present, and future

John Gaudiosi | Sept. 9, 2014
Doom creator and id Software co-founder John Carmack has discovered a new passion to keep him working long into the night: The man who helped introduce 3D first-person shooters to the world is trailblazing once again, but in the virtual reality space.

Doom creator and id Software co-founder John Carmack has discovered a new passion to keep him working long into the night: The man who helped introduce 3D first-person shooters to the world is trailblazing once again, but in the virtual reality space.

Carmack, now the chief technology officer of Facebook-owned Oculus VR, has emerged from his programming bunker to debut the new Samsung Gear VR headset, which runs Oculus Rift software and plugs into the new Samsung Note 4 phablet. (That's a picture of him wearing the Gear VR above.)

In this interview, the normally reclusive Carmack explains why this generation of VR devices is different from the false promises of past virtual reality fads, compares Oculus VR's work to the early days of 3D PC games, and more.

PCWorld: What separates what's going on in virtual reality today from past VR waves that we've seen over the last few decades?

Carmack: There have only been two waves to speak of. In the nineties there was a false dawn of VR, where everybody got the religious excitement of the possibilities, but the technology really wasn't there. And honestly there was a fair amount of "punksterism" in the industry there, where people were capitalizing on the movie portrayals of what virtual reality would be, and pushing things that brought absolutely no resemblance to what people imagined it was going to be like. There was some serious work going on at NASA and a few other research places, but really it was not even close — no matter how much money they put into it.

It went for twenty years that way, with not a whole lot going on. That was one of the real surprises for me, when I came back to it after all this time had passed and I took a look at virtual reality. I was shocked at how little progress there was in that intervening time. And it turned out that all of a sudden virtual reality — just as nobody was looking at it — had become possible. That's really how Oculus started spinning things up and we have our product lines with the PC-focused stuff and the mobile-focused stuff.

How does this work in VR compare to the early days of 3D PC game programming?

There are some people that I've run into that have known me for a long time but I haven't talked with in a while and the comment I get is, "This is just what you were like back when we were doing Doom." [Oculus chief scientist and former Quake programmer] Michael Abrash said the same thing to me — "You're excited like you were back when we were doing those initial games."

 

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