Excerpt: Five Stories From Blake Harris Book The History Of The Future

by Ian Hamilton • February 20th, 2019

The new book The History Of The Future is out in hardcover, ebook and audiobook. The narrative written by Console Wars author Blake Harris charts the 2012 founding of Oculus. Along the way there is an accounting of the $3 billion acquisition by Facebook and $500 million jury decision. The story ends after the 2017 exit of Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey.the history of the future blake harris

Along the way is Chapter 23, titled NINE STORIES. The chapter focuses on developers in April 2013 receiving the first Rift development kit — known as DK1. 56,334 of the headsets would eventually ship to 114 countries. The nine stories provide an intimate look into how some lives changed with the arrival of that VR headset.

Last week, we published a remarkable email referenced in the book originally sent by John Carmack in 2015 to Oculus leaders. The document assesses the group’s strengths and weaknesses with extraordinary detail. This week, we are printing excerpts from Chapter 23.

Below are the last five of the nine stories. Also be sure to check yesterday’s excerpt of the first four stories from  Chapter 23 of The History Of The Future.

5. CHRIS GALLIZZI

Los Angeles, California

Like many gamers in 2013, Chris Gallizzi was obsessed with The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. After all, what could possibly be better than playing as Dragonborn, training with the Greybeards, and battling Alduin in an epic, open-world civil war? Well, actually, Gallizzi thought, there was one thing that could make Skyrim even better: actually becoming Dragonborn.

As the head of R&D for Hyperkin—a hardware manufacturer best known for cloning retro consoles—Gallizzi wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. So he used an open-source 3-D driver called Vireio Perception and began modding a version of Skyrim that would work on his DK1.

When the mod was in a semiplayable state, Gallizzi called up the head of Hyperkin to tell him how incredible it felt to be immersed inside his favorite game. “I want you to see,” Gallizzi said, and then took in his PC and devkit for everyone in the office to see.

Unfortunately, Gallizzi’s initial demo didn’t go so well—leading several of his colleagues to feel nauseated—but that only inspired him to make his mod better. To perfect the warping and stabilize the experience, which he did during his off-hours over the next two weeks before demoing it all again. This time, the reaction was totally different; this time he actually made believers out of a few people. And now that his colleagues were starting to see VR through rosier-colored eyes, Gallizzi made his move.

“I think we should get into VR,” Gallizzi told the head of Hyperkin: CEO Steven Mar.

“That’s a nice idea,” Mar replied. “But we’re solely focused on retro-gaming.”

This was true, of course. The company’s claim to fame was their RetroN 2, which was a two-in-one console that could play cartridges for both the NES and SNES systems. Getting into VR wasn’t exactly a lateral move. “But,” Gallizzi explained, “when Hyperkin first started, retro was a small niche market. And now it’s kind of exploded. VR is niche now, but I think it’s about to blow up in a similar way. So let’s get in at the ground level!”

Mar wasn’t yet ready to devote many resources to this new niche, but he did give Gallizzi permission to work on VR on the side. Perfect!

That was all he wanted. And then almost as if a reward for his gumption, Gallizzi’s Skyrim mod started blowing up online. An article on Kotaku (“Here’s Skyrim Running on the Oculus Rift VR Headset”) led to parroted pieces on IGN, Polygon, GameSpot, and dozens more. But for a true believer like Gallizzi, all that press—while humbling—was nothing compared to a vote of confidence from Cymatic Bruce.

6. CYMATIC BRUCE

San Jose, California

By day, Bert Wooden was a program director for Galileo Learning’s summer camp initiative; by night—under the alias “Cymatic Bruce”—he was a beloved VR evangelist.

With warm greetings to “Rifters,” “VR Heads,” and “Fellow Purveyors of Virtual Worlds,” Cymatic Bruce’s YouTube videos chronicled his daily VR adventures—quickly becoming the go-to streaming source for those wanting to learn about the latest Oculus mods, demos, and games. And on April 13, Bruce recorded what would become one of his most-viewed videos to date.

“All right!” he said, starting of the stream. “This looks wild . . .”

The “this” was Chris Gallizzi’s Skyrim mod and for the next minutes, Cymatic Bruce took viewers on a journey through a VR version of the game. Then after climbing a tower and avoiding the fiery breath of an angry dragon, Bruce proclaimed, “Skyrim is fantastic, people. It’s fantastic . . . you have to use mouse and keyboard, unfortunately (unless someone has a hack to use both controller and the mouse at the same time), but yeah: this is great, this is really good. I feel great afterwards as well. And all of the stuff when the dragon was popping out is just . . . really shocking.”

Cymatic Bruce wasn’t the only Rifter streaming VR videos, so what was it that elevated him above the crowd? His earnestness? His curiosity? His ability to toggle between the technical and the cool? It was all these things, yes, but there was another thing, too: consistency. Just about every day—during this exciting, unprecedented period where thousands of devs were playing with VR for the first time—he put up a new video on YouTube. New mods, new demos, new games.

So it was no surprise when, the following day, Cymatic Bruce was back to work: “All right! Hey, Rifters. Welcome to another video . . . Half-Life 2.”

7. PAUL BETTNER

McKinney, TX

“I played Half-Life 2 on the Rift,” Paul Bettner told the small-but-growing team at Verse. They were now up to sixteen devs. “It is a life-changing experience. No exaggeration.”

The artist inside Bettner wanted to follow this up by proclaiming that his company would now be shifting all its resources from developing for Ouya to Oculus, but the businessman in him knew that just wasn’t practical right now. Because even if Ouya flamed out, the game they were building for Ouya’s console—a first-person adventure game
called Thereafter—could easily be ported to PC (and that PC version could probably even be enabled to work in VR). Whereas, unfortunately, the reverse just didn’t seem true: anything designed with VR in mind seemed unlikely to port easily for consoles or PCs. And while it was very impressive that Oculus had sold 20,000+ devkits, that was literally less .001 percent of the install base for console and PC gaming.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg thing,” Bettner told his friend Nabeel Hyatt over the phone.

Bettner had known Hyatt for years and they shared a special bond: both had sold their gaming companies to Zynga in 2010; and then both served as VPs at Zynga for two years until they could no longer resist the siren song of start-ups. However, they went about doing so in rather different ways: Bettner, of course, left Zynga to go and start Verse; and Hyatt left to go and help start several companies as a VC at Spark Capital. Which, in this instance, was actually what had prompted the conversation: Hyatt was doing due diligence for Spark’s investment in Oculus. And at the end of the call—after Bettner expressed how impressed he has been by Luckey, Iribe, and the rest of their team—the conversation turned personal and Hyatt asked if he was developing a game for the Rift.

“I’ve reassembled the team that made Words with Friends,” Bettner replied. “Sixteen of the most talented developers, artists, and designers I’ve ever worked with. We’re creating a brand-new first-person adventure game. A game that also happens to work in VR although it’s not designed specifically for that. So, yes, we are developing a game for the Rift, but it isn’t the game I really want to make. The market is just too new, so we needed to mitigate that risk and design something that’ll work on multiple platforms.”

Hyatt understood. He was no stranger to battles between passion and logic.

“But . . .” Bettner said, as their call came to a close. “I kinda wish this wasn’t the case. I kinda wish we could somehow take the craziest risk. I wish we could make a game that could only exist in VR.

Even more specifically, what Bettner really wanted to make was the “Mario of VR.” He wanted to do for VR what Super Mario Bros. had done for the 8-bit NES; or what Nintendogs had done for the Nintendo DS; or what Wii Sports had done for the Wii. The artist in him wanted to plant a flag in this new medium, but the businessman whispered that his growing game studio was in no position to take such a risk.

If only there was a way to satisfy both sides—to be a pioneer, but a responsible pioneer. And then shortly after his conversation with Hyatt, Bettner had a crazy idea; so crazy, in fact, that he thought it might actually work.

8. JOOHYUNG AN

Seoul, South Korea

Joohyung An enjoyed playing games. But to him, the magic of VR was about so much more than that. Maybe it harkened back to his college days, when he was majoring in architecture and first learned how VRML—the virtual reality modeling language—could be used to visualize buildings, communities, and all sorts of virtual environments.

That was all now years ago, but it had stuck with An enough that between the time when Oculus’s Dillon Seo gave him a demo of Hawken and his DK1 arrived in the mail, his mind had moved away from games to movies. What he was thinking specifically was how great it would be create a virtual movie theater. And the beauty of such a place would be
that—with just the six-inch display in the headset—you could actually feel like you’re looking up at a sixty-foot-wide screen.

9. GOROMAN

Kawasaki, Japan

“This is so dangerous,” tweeted Yoshihito Kondoh: aka GOROman. “I feel like I’m in the movie theater.”

GOROman loved Joohyung An’s VR Cinema3D. And he loved seeing what other devs were coming up with. Every day, it seemed, there was something new to try! And every day, it seemed, there was some new reaction video sweeping the internet. His favorite was the one where a ninety-year-old grandmother freaks out: “It’s so real . . .oh Lordy!”

That video had already been viewed over a million times. But it wasn’t just the buzz and cool content that had GOROman feeling bullish about VR. It was also the sense of community—this feeling that he was a part of something special. And nowhere was this feeling summed up better than on the Kickstarter page for Cloudhead Games’ upcoming puzzle/adventure game:

CALLING ALL OCULUS RIFT DEVELOPERS!

We see all of you as brothers-in-arms, brave pioneers of the new frontier! We want you involved, traveling with us on this journey. We would like to invite you into our process, to help us identify issues and to find creative solutions. We want you to learn from our trials and tribulations so that you can turn around and create amazing content for the Oculus Rift.

The camaraderie and creativity of the dev community inspired GOROman. It made him even more eager to share and revise the pet project he’d been working on: MikuMikuDance in VR.

“Miku” was Hatsune Miku, the turquoise-haired, teenage pop sensation who was taking the Japanese music world by storm. Also: she didn’t actually exist. At least not in the conventional sense. For she was not human, but rather a piece of Vocaloid software developed by Crypton Future Media, in conjunction with the Yamaha Corporation. Marketed as “an android diva in the near-future world where songs are lost” and first released in 2007, Hatsune Miku quickly resonated with a generation of musicians and music aficionados who fell for her sweet, not-too-robotic synthetic voice. And since her debut, Miku has voiced dozens of hit songs, starred in several video games and—as a performing hologram—sold out concerts around the world.

But there was one thing Hatsune Miku had not yet done: appear in virtual reality. So GOROman set out to change that—to create a way for fans to finally “meet” the pop diva. To look at her; to be looked at by her; to spend time with a fictional character that somewhere along the way had become real.

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