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On March 25, both the business and technology news pages excitedly announced Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, the maker of a virtual reality gaming headset called Oculus Rift.
"Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures," stated Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, as he explained the reasoning behind the acquisition. “After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face –just by putting on goggles in your home.”Steve LaValle, an alumnus (PhD 1995, Electrical Engineering) and professor of computer science and CSL faculty member at Illinois, has a special insight into the development of the new virtual reality (VR) technology.
“I realized when I tried the Oculus VR prototype that it cleverly leveraged the latest hardware that exists thanks to the smart phone industry,” explained LaValle, who has been leading Oculus’ R&D efforts as its head scientist since taking leave from the University in September 2012. At that time, Oculus comprised only a handful of people working from their homes, and they had just successfully completed their Kickstarter run.
"They reached out to me because my free on-line book contains material that they needed to get started with head tracking. I loved their passion and was impressed with the first prototype that they showed me. I was convinced right away that the technology had finally arrived to realize the VR dream of the 1990s.”
By using MEMS sensors and high resolution screens from these devices, Palmer Luckey, the company's 21-year-old founder, showed that they could be rearranged to make a VR experience that is low cost and highly immersive. As noted in the company's blog, LaValle has been leading research and development on some of the toughest VR challenges including sensor fusion, magnetic drift correction, and kinematic modeling.
"I started by developing head tracking methods, and broadened my activities over time to include work on perceptual psychology, computer vision, sensor calibration, health and safety, automated testing, and optics," LaValle said.
During his time at Oculus, LaValle has worked side-by-side with his wife and Illinois alumna, Anna Yershova (PhD 2008, Computer Science) whose own research interests include robotics, motion planning, and computational geometry. In addition, two computer science students—Max Katsev and Dan Gierl—transitioned from working at Lavalle’s robotics lab at Illinois to working as interns at Oculus.
Although it started as—and continues to be—a device that enables highly immersive gaming experiences, Oculus’ vision is to be the next great platform or medium to experience all sorts of content.
“This poses exciting new challenges for artists and cinematographers. Now, consider what kinds of social interaction are possible with millions of people immersed into virtual worlds. Much more is possible, but hard to predict. The most exciting transformations that this technology will make on society are yet to be envisioned. I expect this to come from young, creative artists, engineers, and scientists.
"I have been fortunate to be in an environment where I am always learning and interacting with extremely smart people. Over the years, I have been able to both deepen my scientific background and broaden my collaborations. This has made me aware of cultural issues in research communities and technology fields that often cause people to become stuck. I have therefore learned to identify problems from unusual angles and fundamentally question common beliefs. This has been extremely valuable in helping to shape the future of technology.”
Writers: Rick Kubetz & Michelle Rice, Engineering Communications Office.