LaValle Central to Oculus' $2 Billion Success

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.

CS Professor Steve LaValle demoed his Oculus Rift technology to students during a recent visit back to campus.
CS Professor Steve LaValle demoed his Oculus Rift technology to students during a recent visit back to campus.

“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.”

Illinois alumnus and CS Professor Steve Lavalle (PhD EE ’95) 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.

“Participating in the transition from research to development to a commercial product has been extremely valuable,” he noted. “The research we do in academia has tremendous potential for impact, but it is also high risk and with a long time horizon. To make an effective product, simple and highly robust solutions are needed. If this is not possible, then perhaps the technology is not ready yet. The product must be extremely reliable and cost effective, which are criteria that are often at odds with pure research goals.”

Anna Yershova, a CS alumna and Oculus research scientist helps CS Professor Gerald DeJong try out the Oculus Rift HD prototype.
Anna Yershova, a CS alumna and Oculus research scientist helps CS Professor Gerald DeJong try out the Oculus Rift HD prototype.

During his time at Oculus, LaValle has worked side-by-side with his wife and CS @ 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.

“The possibilities are endless,” LaValle remarked. “You can experience live panoramas from anywhere in the world, while being able to turn your head and even take in live, localized audio. Take a virtual trip abroad, attend a live symphony, or have front-row seats at the World Series. You can now watch existing movies in a virtual movie theater, but the next step is to immerse you into the story.

“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.”