Q&A: Gaming legend John Carmack talks VR gaming's past, present, and future

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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.”

And it’s been great to see the progress and the polish and the evolution of all that [PC game] stuff over the last twenty years, but there certainly is a sense over the last decade that we’re past the knee of the curve in terms of the benefits that we’re getting from continuing to polish those same things. They’re still great. They’re still getting better, but they’re not getting better at as impressive as a pace.


John Carmack wearing the first-generation Oculus Rift dev kit.

While the last couple of years working with VR here, I’ve felt more like myself than I have in a long time. It’s making a big difference in early level technology, setting the stage or preparing the canvas for the artists that are going to do the magical work on it. Anybody that’s been around me while I’m doing this stuff and gets me going about how this is going to be changing things, what problems we need to address—it is very much the same thing except it’s happening so much faster.

I can remember way back then waiting for GPU accelerators to get decently fast enough to be able to do things, or waiting for them to appear at all, and waiting for broadband to boot up with the multiplayer gaming. It would just take these long periods of time, whereas here (at Oculus) big things are happening every year. In two years, Oculus has gone from a duct tape prototype to [the second-generation developer Rift kit] DK2, and the VR is really great. It’s only going to be going faster now with partnerships with companies like Samsung and the backing of Facebook. It's a wild roller coaster in real life that we’re getting, creating these virtual things.

What are your thoughts on the evolution of mobile gaming from simple games to more console-style games that are being designed today for micro-consoles like Android TV and the promise of mobile devices as portable consoles?

I do think that that notion of mobile as portable consoles is more of a dream in some parts of the industry right now than the reality. In reality people are playing Candy Crush and Clash of Clans and things like that on mobile, which is still largely the bite-sized chunks. The fact that they’re powerful enough to do the console-like experience hasn’t yet really translated into that being what people have shown by their actions that they really want.

How do you see the VR video game experiences for mobile evolving compared to what we’ve seen with traditional mobile games?

gear vr Samsung

Samsung's wire-free Gear VR virtual reality headset was built from the ground up for mobile, requiring a Galaxy Note 4 to function as its display and processing brains.

Even on PC VR right now, most of the VR experiences do tend to be these smaller nuggets of interesting experiences. There are a few of them that are multi-hour, long-term play experiences, but a lot of the interesting stuff is in the smaller things. So there’s an energy there where the best experimental mode is trying out these bite-sized nuggets and that sits well with the current capabilities of the system, so I think that’s an entirely positive relationship there.

Eventually, we do expect that we’ll have the world of people living all day in their VR in some cases, but that’s not where we’re at right now. And that’s just fine because we’re still figuring out the design language for a lot of things.

One of the most exciting things from a marketplace standpoint is that nobody really knows yet what all these answers are. It’s like the early exciting gold rush days of the early touch systems when the iPhone was first offering the App Store, and no one knew that [Angry Birds maker] Rovio was going to be a big success or the different breakout companies at the start. We think there’s a great opportunity for people to go out and figure that out now with VR and possibly become the next billion dollar software company.

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