Venture capital companies are paying close attention to developers of virtual reality games and devices.

OCTOBER 13, 2013, 11:00 AM

Disruptions: Bit by Bit, Virtual Reality Heads for the Holodeck



Palmer Lucky, the creator of the Oculus Rift headset that immerses the wearer in a virtual reality video game.

While sitting in a stuffy Hollywood hotel conference room recently, I plotted my next move outside a snow-covered, ancient castle. I raised an arm to block the falling snow as I peered up. As I looked from side to side, white drifts extended into the distance. Yes, I know Los Angeles hotels and snowy castles are an unusual combination, so here’s the other half of the story: I was wearing Oculus virtual-reality goggles — they look a bit like blacked-out ski goggles with a screen inside. Despite the blandness of my physical surroundings, my eyes told me I was immersed in an icy scene straight out of “Game of Thrones.” And my stomach told me I had been right to pack Dramamine for this virtual trip.Just a few years ago, the holy grail of entertainment, immersive virtual environments that put you at the center of the action, was only a dream of Hollywood executives and Silicon Valley gaming publishers.

To experience this futuristic world, I tested a product called Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality device designed almost exclusively for gamers. You can use it to play first-person shooter games, zip cars around racing tracks or even become a chicken, pecking for food by bobbing your head up and down. The Oculus goggles, which cost $300, are still available only for developers who plan to experiment with them.

And this is only the first step in a much grander vision.

The next phase of this technology could look like this: Imagine walking into a room where the floor could move in any direction, almost like a multidirectional treadmill, where you could walk and walk and never hit a wall. Now imagine that when the door to the room closes, the seams on the walls and floor essentially disappear as the entire vault becomes a screen that is indistinguishable from real life. If that sounds a bit like the holodeck frequented by Captain Picard on the starship Enterprise, you are right.

But there are hurdles before science fiction becomes reality — or virtual reality. Among them, the computing power to operate such an experience in real time will be wildly expensive.

Just as big a problem is nausea. When people tried early virtual reality prototypes, they typically felt sick after playing for even a short period. The term game designers use to describe this feeling is “simulation sickness,” and it can occur because your brain and your body are confused.

“On a boat, your inner ear is feeling movement, but your visual is not moving, which is sea sickness,” said Brendan Iribe, the chief executive of Oculus VR. “Simulator sickness is the opposite. You put on the goggles and you’re sitting down, still, but your visual cues are getting a different set of signals than your inner ear.”

He added, “Simulator sickness has been one of the biggest barriers holding virtual reality back.”

To solve this problem, developers are trying to create a virtual experience indistinguishable from reality. Mr. Iribe said researchers in his labs had tested a set of Oculus goggles that may be able to limit, or even remove, this nauseated feeling by altering the way video is rendered on screen.

It’s unclear how that prototype goes from a lab to a living room, but there is enough excitement around virtual reality that investors are flocking to the companies that are experimenting with it.

“When I first heard about this, I said, ‘Virtual reality and Hollywood, no thanks,’ ” said Santo Politi, a general partner with the venture firm Spark Capital and an investor in Oculus VR. “Then I tried the goggles on and immediately said, ‘Wow! Ok, who do I write the check to?’ ”

There was enough momentum behind Oculus that John Carmack, one of the creators of the early first-person shooter games “Doom” and “Quake,” joined the company in August as its chief technology officer. Mr. Carmack, considered one of the leading experts on gaming, said virtual reality “will have a huge impact” on society in the coming years.

Another company, Avegant, based in Ann Arbor, Mich., has demonstrated virtual reality goggles that take a different approach to delivering images to the viewers. Rather than place high-resolution screens over a viewer’s eyes, Avegant’s technology projects images directly into the retina; it is almost like staring into a very detailed projector. The company said this makes the experience even more immersive and creates a much higher resolution image.

Once these companies solve the visual presentation of virtual reality, gamers imagine an experience where sensors are attached to their bodies and they can move around in virtual space. Some envision a hamster wheel for humans, where you run inside a large ball. While game designers debate how long it would take before humans were imitating hamsters, they seem to agree that it would be possible within the next decade.

“You want to mimic your body in a virtual,” said Mr. Iribe of Ocular VR. “When you’re playing and you’re engaged, you will forget that you’re actually playing a game.”

Which leads to one of the other potential problems with the future of virtual reality gaming: when is too real, well, too real? It is one thing to play a game where you are clearly killing pixilated zombies or shooting computerized cops and robbers.

But do we really want to see someone ripped limb from limb — or be the person ripped limb from limb — in a gaming experience that is indistinguishable from real life?

Mr. Iribe doesn’t know the answer. “Humans don’t actually want to go in and actually ‘Save Private Ryan.’ It’s too intense,” he said. “But at the same time, they really, really want the holodeck.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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