On his website, Rod Furlan describes himself as an artificial intelligence researcher, a quantitative analyst, and an alumnus of the Singularity University. He also makes things: personal augmentation devices, artificial intelligences, and virtual reality kits. The last is arguably what Furlan is best known for: In 2012, Furlan began building his own version of the Oculus Rift. By doing so, he helped catalyze the DIY virtual reality movement.
Furlan insists that he wasn't trying to usurp the Oculus Rift's rising star. He had, after all, pledged to the Kickstarter project. But found himself far too impatient to wait for the official product. So Furlan decided to make the Oculus Libre, just to tide him over until the real thing arrived. First, he cobbled together his own homebrew head-mounted display (HMD).
Furlan's homebrew Oculus alternative. Image: Furlan
He then went on to release the instructions on both his own website and on the Meant To Be Seen in 3D (MTBS3D) forums, a buzzing outlet for DIY virtual reality tinkerers. The response his work received was immediate—and almost overwhelmingly positive.
While similar guides have long existed, Furlan's manual is widely deemed the first to be sufficiently detailed for the masses. It helped enforce the notion that virtual reality needn't strictly be the province of commercial entities or those, such as the Oculus Rift's creator, who had caught a lucky break. Anyone could make a little bit of digital magic. The only real question should be whether they wanted to.
Since then, it has been a veritable parade of open source communal endeavors. A trip through MTBS3D can be both awe-inspiring and humbling. The thread that Furlan began has spawned 1,167 responses and over 100,000 views.
Stretching over 43 pages, it's saturated with discussions about hardware selections, the efficiency of various approaches, new ideas, failed attempts, and everything in between. Though many are striving to develop their own variation of the Oculus Rift, others are busy concocting different HMDs. A forum user named TheLostBrain (that's his profile pic to the left) has been developing an open-source HMD that boasts of slightly higher resolution per eye and a greater field of vision. Foisi, who is working on an ultra wide FOV HMD, is another.
The folks at MTBS3D aren't the only ones driving the alt-VR game. The University of Southern California's MxR Lab has an online repository of designs and mods for the DIY enthusiast, one that includes directions on how to build a 3D-printed HMD. With both hardware enthusiasts and software developers coming together to expand this nascent industry, is this where virtual reality makes its long overdue come back? Some believe so.
Ben Lang, who co-runs the Road to VR website, says that several industry veterans have already declared this the "tipping point for consumer VR."
“Don't forget," he says, "VR is alive and well in the professional industry (simulation, training, research, etc.), but it's always been cost prohibitive for the mass market. The reason that the Rift has been such a revelation is because it's providing an experience that used to cost thousands of dollars (if not tens of thousands) at a $300 price point.”
MXR Labs' "Unofficial sensor mount mod." Image: USC
Lang adds that “There are many pieces to the VR puzzle, having a good HMD to start with is huge, but also important is the fact that personal computers and gaming/rendering tech has come so far in the last 20 years."
Like Lang, Furlan believes that the growing resurgence of virtual reality is connected to the kind of technology we possess today. “Rendering 3D graphics in the 80s wasn't as easy as it is now," he remarks. Having developed his first HMD when he was 16 (he describes his initial attempt as "terrible") Furlan is definitely one to know.
“The optics, the head tracking, those components haven't changed much but now we have really good small sized screens, and powerful GPUs to drive them and those components are cheap, which make a world of difference.”
“This would have been almost impossible even 3 years ago,” says Ethan Lowry, co-founder of the restaurant review app UrbanSpoon and one half of the team behind Poppy, a device probably best described as a View-Master for the smartphone generation. “That's what makes it so exciting.”
Lang says that the advent of such low-cost hardware may soon bring yet another change to the industry: cheaper equipment for the professional fields. He explains that part of the reason as to why the technology has been so exorbitantly expensive—virtual reality hardware can cost $35,000 or even more—is the simple fact that businesses can afford to pay. With competition encroaching, however, suppliers will need to adapt to the upcoming trends or risk being left on the wayside.
“For instance, take the Oculus Rift head tracker. It's a custom made Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) that does the same, if not a better, job than many of the professional IMUs out there, and it costs substantially less money. Oculus has said in the past that they might offer the tracker separately which could even impact that market. I've used a several thousand dollar IMU for head-tracking and the Rift's head-tracker, and there is no discernible difference for that use-case.”
Interestingly, the IMU currently utilized by the Oculus Rift was originally the personal project of one Nirav Patel. He had been working on developing a low cost IMU for head-tracking when Oculus took Patel aboard.
“I think that DIY VR is here to stay, now that we have all the parts we need available at acceptable cost.” Furlan enthuses. “We can also expect DIY projects to outspec commercial products because independent makers are not bound to market cycles. For example, the team at MTBS3D is already working on a DIY design with a 2,048 by 1,536 resolution, which is a gigantic improvement in per-eye resolution vs. the Rift.”
Another DIY device showcased on MTBS3D
A firm proponent of the Oculus Rift, Furlan says that building your own HMD is something that is done for "fun and personal growth. It's not something you do to save money or time. If you want something that just works, it is best to buy a commercial product. “
Whether others will hold to Furlan's philosophy or not remains to be seen. Certainly, there's a growing market for low-cost virtual reality hardware. Lowry's Poppy is a good example: Ostensibly intended to turn a regular iPhone into a 3D camera, Lowry says that it has drawn considerable interest from Rift developers. For $49, they have access to video capture suited for the 3D environment of their chosen medium.
And that's simply the beginning.
Expansive instructions, along with a diverse group of like-minded people, are available everywhere on the Internet these days. Last month, Karl Krantz chaired the first 'Silicon Valley Virtual Reality' meetup where builders discussed new developments and innovations. While hardly on the scale of the Consumer Electronic Show, it's indicative of how far the field has progressed. Virtual reality is no longer a novelty—it's a step into the future. The most intriguing aspect of this all, perhaps, is how amateur makers exist at the fulcrum of this revolution. The Oculus Rift, which so many have labeled as the poster child of the VR resurgence, draws roots from the DIY movement, after all.
"We are living in very interesting times. The tools of creation are becoming more accessible at an incredible pace," Furlan says. "We are going to start seeing more and more amateur makers building incredible devices."