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Oculus's chief scientist: VR will succeed because your vision sucks

Caitlin McGarry | March 27, 2015
Virtual reality has been just beyond our grasp for decades. The parts to build VR headsets were too expensive, the technology too rudimentary to convince anyone that what they were seeing was real.

Virtual reality has been just beyond our grasp for decades. The parts to build VR headsets were too expensive, the technology too rudimentary to convince anyone that what they were seeing was real.

Virtual reality has become more accessible and less expensive, thanks to Oculus. Samsung's Oculus-powered Gear VR headset is now on sale for $200, and Oculus Rift is expected to finally hit store shelves this year for somewhere in the $200-$400 range. But the technology has also improved by leaps and bounds, thanks to Oculus's exploitation of your terible vision.

Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash took the stage at Facebook's F8 Developers Conference on Thursday and barely mentioned the company's game-changing product. (Nope, no price or release date yet.) Instead, he demonstrated how virtual reality works: by fooling your conscious mind into believing that what it sees is real.

Basically, your eyesight is completely unreliable. Remember The Dress? You know, the blue-and-black one, or the white-and-gold one, depending on how your brain perceives color. That phenomenon is a perfect example of how our vision fails us on a daily basis — and VR headset makers like Oculus will use that failure to convince our brains that the worlds they create are real.

Abrash took the F8 audience of developers and journalists through a bizarre series of visual illusion exercises to prove that our eyes are constantly lying to us. If you place a dark filter in front of one eye, your eye will perceive flat objects as having depth, which is known as the Pulfrich effect. The McGurk effect describes how what you see affects what you hear, like lips mouthing one word with a voice track saying another.

"Reality is what our brain reconstructs it to be," Abrash said. "Our experience of the world is an illusion, one that evolution has honed to be highly functional."

Once you realize just how easily the eye is tricked, virtual reality's potential to become the next generation of computing becomes a much more convincing proposition. So the saying goes: "All reality is virtual."

How Facebook will change the future of VR

That's where Facebook comes in. The company bought Oculus last year for $2 billion in a deal that made just about everyone scratch their heads. But the acquisition is a bet that virtual reality will become so impressive, so immersive, that we'll be able to use Rift headsets for just about anything.

That future is long, long way off.

"Virtual reality today is good enough to create experiences, but just barely," Abrash said. "One reason the future of VR is so bright is because it can get much, much better."

 

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