The Virtual Reality of John Carmack

The Dallas video game genius behind “Doom” and “Quake” is back, this time in the nascent VR space. In this exclusive interview, he tells why.

From the storyteller on a Greek stage to the latest in curved-screen tvs and IMAX theaters, the holy grail of entertainment has always been immersion: putting the audience “inside” the drama, transporting them to another time and place. To date, that has been an “over there” experience, leaving a physical gap that reminds our senses that we’re not truly immersed. But that’s beginning to change, thanks to the advent of modern Virtual Reality (VR) technology.

Just within the last two years, there has been a great leap forward in immersion techniques. Along the way we’ve discovered that VR is not just for entertainment—gaming and movies, for example—but that it also has broad commercial applications for the likes of virtual travel, real estate evaluation, and remote training. While companies ranging from Google to Sony are jumping into the space, the undisputed leader in this new technology is 3-year-old Oculus VR, a California-based virtual reality firm that was acquired by Facebook last year for $2 billion. The company produces the Oculus Rift, the leading VR headgear, whose first consumer version is slated to arrive in early 2016. And the technology leader for Oculus is North Texas video game pioneer John Carmack.

Feeling intimidated in conversation with Carmack is understandable. He’s a brilliant tech innovator whom you might imagine has the answer to many of our most burning questions: Where will science lead us? What’s next for humanity? It’s more likely, though, that you will get a clipped reply to such questions, like this: “That is not something I have developed a specific opinion on yet.” But, wait for it—then Carmack will take your question and turn it around, allowing himself the runway to expound on whatever is on his mind.

In scientific detail garnished with a sharp, fleeting smile, he will lay out an analytic yet buoyant vision of the future … the future of what interests him, that is: aerospace, and immersive experiences, punctuated with a good dose of libertarian philosophy. One way or another you will come away enthused and a little less intimidated by this man—a cultural icon who has, defiantly, made Dallas his home.

Yes, defiantly. After Carmack accepted the job as chief technology officer at Oculus, he turned down an undisclosed (yet no doubt extraordinary) offer to move his family to the company headquarters in California’s Silicon Valley. No, he would not leave Texas, he said. In fact, as a condition of his acceptance, he said Oculus would have to open an office in Dallas—which it has since done. In a glass tower near NorthPark Center, with a team of 15 or so Oculus employees, Carmack now does what he does best: quietly invent, innovate, and solve. And he does so with an attitude that all things are not only possible, but he is the man to do them. “I am such an optimist about everything that we have today and where we are going,” he says. “I am happy to be part of the technological wave pushing things.”

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When John Carmack joined Oculus, he wanted to stay in Dallas. “We appreciate the sense of Southern hospitality” here, he says. “You don’t get the sense that everyone needs to be coddled and taken care of. You get the sense of gumption.”
First things first, though, for the uninitiated: Who, exactly, is John Carmack? If you are over 35 and have ever played “Doom,” you are mildly confused at how others might be unaware of the tech genius in our midst. Moreover, if you still play “Wolfenstein 3D,” you are downright annoyed at the ignorant civilians for whom the Carmack name doesn’t immediately engender awe. 

For everyone else, picture a socially awkward, 45-year-old Kansas native who is unremarkable in build and height. Envision a college dropout with unruly blonde hair and a sharp-pitched voice whose big wardrobe change from summer to winter is t-shirt/shorts/tennis shoes to t-shirt/pants/tennis shoes. Add in amassed wealth, a dry wit, a teaching spirit matched by a family-devoted heart, and an almost annoying heap of enthusiasm. Finally, layer in the fact that he is one of the pioneers of the largest entertainment industry in the history of mankind, bigger than movies and music combined: the modern video game.

Carmack’s employer, Oculus, produces the head-mounted displays in which players or audience members are immersed 360 degrees in a game or movie. Just before taking the CTO position there, Carmack was wrapping up his long career with his Dallas-based game development company, id Software, where he led the creation of many iconic video games and, along the way, invented much of the industry. 

As usual with Carmack, the decision to join Oculus came from inspiration for its technological challenges. He recalls: “Oculus showed me a mock-up” of what would eventually become the Gear VR—a mobile-phone-based head-mounted display made now by Oculus with Samsung Telecommunications—“and I said, ‘I can do something really good with this.’ So I decided to take the CTO position.”

Prior to joining Oculus, and simultaneous with his work at id, Carmack was pursuing another of his interests—building rockets for space travel through his company Armadillo AeroSpace, looking to get into the “low orbit” world alongside the likes of Elon Musk. Though it didn’t work out, he is optimistic about someday returning to that work, which he readily admits to missing. “There is that ache of something left undone there,” he says. “I spent 10 years and $8 million and, in the end, it didn’t succeed.” 

“Facebook has turned out to be a phenomenal company… The leadership are really earnest people.”

John Carmack
The casualness with which he uses the phrase “didn’t succeed” is conspicuous for Carmack, but he quickly follows with an explanation. “It was a binary thing,” he says matter-of-factly. “We didn’t get into suborbital space within the 10 years; thus it was not a success.” So, what did he get from the work? “I have an integrated set in my brain of all the lessons I’ve learned over time,” he explains. “But I am a remarkably unsentimental person. I really don’t spend much time looking backwards.”

Asked about the similarity of his VR work and the space venture, he says, “We probably are heading more on the path of The Matrix than we are to Mars. But betting on the future has always been a tough thing to do. I do think there are reasons for wanting to have offshoots of humanity that are more segmented by great distances like that. There is a safety-net argument to be made that, as the world gets more and more interconnected, there are hazards to our cultures that you could imagine applying to a worldwide civilization as things homogenize and get more interconnected and interdependent.” 

Carmack is abruptly long-winded, if that makes sense. He continues: “There is a subset of the population that wants a frontier, that wants to go off away from everyone else, that doesn’t want to just lay back in their bed, even with perfect virtual reality. That is the nature of man. You don’t have to have a rational reason [to go to Mars. You] have to simply accept that there are a bunch of people who want to go.”

Eventually in our conversation we return to VR technology and Oculus/Facebook. There is a prickled awareness in his tone as he divulges that some of his fans have labeled him a sellout to the mega-corporation. But then he beams. “Facebook has turned out to be a phenomenal company,” Carmack says. “Of course people will say I am a shill for them now, but the leadership are really earnest people. But, yeah, a lot of people went, ‘What the hell?’”

I attempt to lead him further in that direction, to perhaps get more scoop on Facebook, but he is not quite done talking about space travel. “I miss the physicality of building things, and the raw rumbling power of rocket ships,” he says. “But I am so ‘overflowingly buzzy’ about so many things. Some people look at the Internet and see a cesspool of all the degenerate stuff that is wrong with humanity. I look and see millions of brilliant, hard-working people that are adding all this value. 

“The smartest human being who ever lived is alive right now … by the nature of the fraction of the number of people here, the information assets, the health facilities,” Carmack goes on. “The world is full of brilliant people—and is getting better day by day.”

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pull Carmack back to virtual reality, and he adjusts without the slightest intermission of his upbeat tempo. “I think there is a moral aspect to [virtual reality technology], to take some slice of all of the experiences money can buy and replicate them digitally for everyone to experience,” he says. “I want to see a world where there are a billion people in VR who are experiencing that wealth multiplier. If it can do one percent of the experiences of life, and we multiply that times a billion, that is a huge thing.” 

He drives his point home with the analogy of a private island, explaining that although in “reality” few can have their own island, everyone can experience having their own in “virtual reality.” He likes this point … that VR can avail the experiences of the 1 percent to the 99 percent. The redistribution of wealth is certainly not in his libertarian mindset, but the open distribution of virtual experiences? This is important to him. 

The Rift, Oculus’ head-mounted display, gives users a completely immersive experience. Users wearing it employ an Xbox One wireless game controller or a pair of Oculus Touch controllers to navigate virtual reality. Photo courtesy of Oculus
Although that will mean inexpensive VR gear—right now a Rift “development kit” is available for $350, but it takes a PC costing at least $1,000 to operate—he is undeterred. In a public speech after our talk, Carmack envisioned a day in the not-too-distant future when VR headgear “may approach the ubiquity and expense of protective cellphone cases.” 

Wait, though: a billion people will enjoy VR? “That is one of the reasons I am aligned with Facebook; it reaches billions of people and brings them together,” Carmack says. “I want to do that with virtual reality, and the ‘connectibility’ that VR brings is aligned with Facebook. In VR, people will have experiences with far more people with kindred spirits than they would from the random inhabitants near their locality.” By “near their locality” he is referring to the “real” world—I think.

Carmack’s high opinion of VR technology goes well beyond the scattering of experiential wealth. In fact, as he continues he leans forward and seems on the verge of standing up. “There are all these magical moments … like putting [a virtual reality display] on a senior citizen’s head and letting them go back and see panoramic photos, like, ‘Here was Europe when you visited 50 years ago.’ It is not about the technology or to experience the cutting edge. Though sure, some of our early backers are definitely about that—they are technologists and want to see what the hot new thing is. But VR has the ability to put people in places where they actually aren’t, with extremely minimal cost. It is amazing.”

“I try to be as efficient and effective as possible. But I do know, deep down, that I can’t accomplish everything.”

John Carmack
Thirty minutes later, our conversation returns to the subject of Dallas, the adopted home where Carmack and his wife, Katherine, feel they belong. (Mainly for its independent-minded people and low taxes.) “My wife is from L.A., by way of Brazil and other places,” he says. “It took her almost a decade to decide she liked Dallas.” 

Carmack explains that although Katherine initially missed all sorts of things from Los Angeles, the North Texas culture eventually won her over. “California has an achingly nice climate, and you love it when you are out there, but Dallas suits us better,” he says. “It is more business-friendly. The people are more aligned with our way of thinking. 

“When Facebook bought Oculus, I had my little team here,” Carmack continues. “They offered everyone very generous compensation packages to move to California. I think they expected most of the team to pick up and go, because it was a nice offer, and they were pretty disappointed when only one did.”

Not surprisingly, he is ready with a list of “practical reasons” for staying in Dallas: “We have our support network. Our kids are in good schools. Good doctors, financial people. I had Armadillo AeroSpace here, which was an anchor … even though that is in hiatus right now. I like Texas. The independent Texas spirit, the libertarian-leaning bits of it are things I feel better about.

“A lot of people, especially from California, say, ‘Texas? Why the hell are you in Texas?’ But I am generally happy to wave the flag and say, ‘No, I am not here under duress.’ I actually like it here. And we appreciate the sense of the Southern hospitality. You don’t get the sense that everyone needs to be coddled and taken care of. You get the sense of gumption.” 

Asked to talk about leadership, his style, and how that works in a creative environment, Carmack takes the cue and begins his next oration: “For most of my career, I was about removing the limitations on the content creators. From the beginning with ‘Wolfenstein,’ ‘Doom,’ ‘Quake’—there were better and better graphics technologies that let games have more freedom.” 

(He says this humbly, as he is the one who invented many of those “better and better” graphics technologies.) 

“But I only realized in the last five years or so the important part that limitations play in the creative process. I had removed and removed and removed [the limitations], and we ended up with a whole lot of creative types that were almost aimless; there were no walls for them to bounce off of to focus things. It was a mistake.”

One might suspect this modesty and self-awareness is an act. But then you realize Carmack is too focused to bother with the triviality of airs or conceits. He simply does not care what you think. He will enjoy talking with you, but you sure aren’t going to influence his mood. 

“All sorts of things may make other people stress out or sulk, but I just try to not be bothered,” he says. “When things don’t work, that doesn’t crush me. I don’t carry the weight of the previous failures. Many people just add more on, burdened by their previous failures, and their previous successes. But you run out of mental energy if you keep paying attention to everything you’ve done in the past.” 

A self-proclaimed “technological triumphalist,” Carmack has no shortage of faith in humanity. “I have faith in progress, faith that we are building better things and the world is getting better. I do believe that most of the good that has come to humanity is a result of technological progress. You could put the most egalitarian society imaginable in ancient Athens and it would not be nearly as good as the more flawed societies of today. Thus I don’t concern myself much with arguments about natural rights, etc., but just focus on making things better.”

And focused he is. Though a visionary by any measure, he prides himself on not letting those visions trip him up. “It’s easy to have a grand vision of the ‘Big Payoff’ at the end while leaving everything between here and there as a fuzzy blur,” Carmack says. “But details matter, and if you can’t see clearly what steps two and three are, it doesn’t really matter what your vision for step 20 is. I embrace the mundane work and find insights while exploring it.”

As our conversation approaches its end, I ask if there is any standout lesson Carmack has learned over the course of his career thus far. He launches in: “I am comfortable being wired somewhat differently than other people. I tend toward this hermit mode. Early on, working constantly by myself, I got the sense that I could get anything done if I worked hard enough. 

“But eventually, during the making of ‘Quake,’ I discovered that there are some things that I just will not be able to do, no matter how hard I work. That was a really important lesson for me. You may choose to work as hard as humanly possible, and not get it done, but that is not necessarily a failure. I try to be as efficient and effective as possible. But I do know, deep down, that I can’t accomplish everything.” 

I ask how he has applied that pivotal lesson to his leadership at Oculus. I’m expecting another pop-ready answer, but instead, a defusing silence follows. Of course he’s not stumped, so what is this? Carmack inhales, flashes a quick smile, then replies: “We say we’re going to accomplish a whole heck of a lot this year, and others will say there is no way we can. Well, maybe. But I know we’re going to get more done than people think is possible.” 

There’s no doubt about that. No doubt at all.  

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