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Michael Abrash leaves Valve to join Oculus VR as Chief Scientist
Michael Abrash leaves Valve to join Oculus VR as Chief Scientist
March 28, 2014 | By Alex Wawro




Virtual reality evangelist Michael Abrash announced today that he has left Valve to join up with Oculus VR.

According to a company blog post published this morning, Abrash will serve as Oculus Chief Scientist. Abrash, an industry veteran who has spent time working on a variety of projects at places like id, Microsoft, and Valve, has become known in recent years for speaking and blogging about his research into augmented reality and virtual reality experiences.

To read Abrash tell it, Facebook's recent acquisition of Oculus VR influenced his decision by rendering virtual reality development a viable career path.

"The resources and long-term commitment that Facebook brings gives Oculus the runway it needs to solve the hard problems of VR and some of them are hard indeed," wrote Abrash. "I now fully expect to spend the rest of my career pushing VR as far ahead as I can."

"It's great to be working with John [Carmack] again after all these years," added Abrash. "It feels like it did when I went to id, but on steroids this time we're working on technology that will change not just computer gaming, but potentially how all of us interact with computers, information, and each other every day."

No further details were offered about the details of Abrash's new role. Gamasutra has reached out to Oculus and Valve for further comment on the news.


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Comments


Lance Thornblad
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I guess this means Valve's VR plans do not align with Abrash's. I was really hoping to see them joining the fight, so to speak.

Garry Grossmann
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IMHO VR isn't among Valve's current top priorities, so while it might be the case, it also could be simply because of the people involved with Oculus Rift.

Albert Jones
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Valve's VR plans seem to be to support Oculus. That's not a terrible decision, a million people are trying to create "the" VR solution and Valve seems to have realized that it makes more sense to back a possible winner than try to catch up.

Mike Griffin
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Valve is a software company first.

Look at the partner strategy for Steam Machines.
They're only shouldering the manufacturing efforts for the Steam Controller.

I didn't foresee a VR hardware future for Valve.
Better for them to just support the lead VR platform.

Thanks to Valve's internal efforts with VR prototyping the last 2 years, however, the company's internal game development teams probably have a leg up on the competition.

I'm confident that Valve is still making great games. Yes, even Half-Life 3. Perhaps that becomes their lead VR game effort.

Alan Barton
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@"Valve's VR plans seem to be to support Oculus"

That was before Facebook bought Oculus. I've said it before, as it now stands, Valve should be worried about Facebook's long term intentions here, as Facebook could easily set themselves up against Steam, so its not in Valve's interests to help Oculus now. But far worse than even that, its not in Oculus/Facebook's interest to help Valve if Facebook is looking to become a game distributor to compete against Steam.

As a result, I can't see Oculus on Steam consoles for very long before Valve will have to have their own VR hardware as Facebook is very likely against Steam as Facebook wants to be a storefront for selling games just like Steam. (Which brings to mind the image of Facebook asking core gamers to install Facebook DRM (plus god knows what spyware) on their machines, just to use Oculus!).

But anyway, it now makes a lot more sense for Valve to push forward developing their own VR hardware (or buy out CastAR?).

Ian Morrison
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I thought they'd already fired the CastAR guys because they didn't feel AR was the way to go.

Alan Barton
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I don't know what happened, but I can't see Valve canning the previous VR work because of AR?. AR + VR in the same CastAR headset has a lot of potential. Also if players don't want to use the AR functionality, the VR still has good resolution and lower latency than Oculus.

I've heard CastAR works with Gabe Newell's approval, so I guess he is keeping the door open with them, so to speak, which would be the smart move, as it keeps his options open in the future. It wouldn't surprise me if he made them an offer in the future. I would have though by now Valve must have the money to buy CastAR, its just if CastAR want to be bought. They have a good shot of it on their own at this time.

Ian Morrison
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I very much doubt it. Given the tone of the interviews with Jeri Ellsworth after her and the rest of the AR guys were fired, I don't think there's a lot of chance of them working for Valve again.

My tenuous, third hand understanding was that Gabe giving them their AR work when they left was somewhere between "we weren't going to do anything with it" and Gabe just being a nice guy. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have people develop something for you in-house, fire them because your company is going in another direction, wait for them to continue their work in a fresh startup company, and then attempt to hire them back.

Alan Barton
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Maybe, but now things have changed with Oculus and if CastAR prove themselves, there could still be hope. Sooner or later Valve will need their own VR headset for their consoles. All console companies will. So buying CastAR is a quicker route to that goal. But it would be much cheaper for them to design their own VR headset, than buy an established business.

Mike Griffin
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Money talks, talent walks?
(Not meant in the personal wealth sense -- rather, the enormous R&D budget available to Oculus now. Probably very attractive to someone dedicated to the cause).

Jason French
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Was the $90M they raised not enough? Is this really and R&D budget problem? This did start on Kickstarter after all. (not saying I know the answer, just very curious)

Ian Morrison
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From what I've been reading from Palmer Luckey post aquisition, it sounds like yeah, it really WASN'T enough. He mentioned that the consumer version would have had to have a lot of compromises and that not everything they'd want would get in, but that it now would happen. There's also apparently a new option of doing custom hardware work that they couldn't before because of insufficient funds/pull with the suppliers. Luckey didn't really elaborate, but I wouldn't be shocked if that meant being able to build displays that aren't just leftovers from the mobile industry, and instead have the faster response, higher framerates, and higher resolutions that VR demands. I have no idea what else might be on the wish list.

Paul Furio
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Damn, about three days too late to really get the sweet stock bonuses from the buyout.

Jason French
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It would be great if someone could publish some real numbers on just how big of a problem ($$$-wise) it is to address VR. It seems every argument supporting the FB/Occulus buyout is "now VR has deep pockets and can do it".

If I'm not mistaken, didn't Oculus raise $90M? Is that not enough money? Maybe it's not, and that's what explains this. Maybe Carmack and Abrash (prior to this) were like "man, I love VR, but I can't do it because I need $1B to afford the R&D of xyz, and our company doesn't have enough".

If that's not the case though, then it most likely indicates selling to FB is a good money exit for the VCs, a good grab for FB, and creates a couple millionaires out of the Oc. employees who got in on the deal. None of these directly speak to the VR issue itself.

Enrique Hernandez
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I heard them once talk about this in some interview.
The problem is with the factories, unless you are a major player like sony/samsung/apple etc, you can't tell the manufacturers exactly what you want in your screens.
So basically you have to ask for "more" of what they are making already for sony/samsung/apple.
Those screens are not specially good for VR, but now with FB money, they could be able to get exactly the screens they need.

VR screens don't need touch panels, don't need gorilla glass, don't need UV resistance, or whatever crap cell phone screens have.

Alan Barton
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"you can't tell the manufacturers exactly what you want in your screens."

That's true, but another way for a small company to do that is to sell version one of their product, and then once they earn many hundreds of millions (which Oculus was already set to do). Then they use that money to invest in an even better next generation of products. That's the way many companies do it and it can be done that way with VR. Also that way they beat all their competitors in "time to market" which is very important to do for a new startup.

Facebook's money wasn't needed. However the $75M VC funding money (before the Facebook buyout) it seems was never really intended to just be about designing better hardware. It was far more a huge carrot on a stick to buy Oculus, so it could then be sold to Facebook.

Interesting side note ... The $75M VC funding was when venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz bought into Oculus. Another interesting side note, they also own shares in Facebook and they have just earned hugely selling Oculus to Facebook. But I'm sure if you ask them, there was no other way. But then their way earns them a lot of money very quickly.

This sale of Oculus to Facebook wasn't really about hardware, it was about earning huge quick profits by selling Oculus.

Alex Covic
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I see your fake $1 Billion and raise it 100 times.

Imagine how much went into research of Jet-engines, the Space Shuttle, cancer research etc, now add how much money it takes AMD or Intel to build their new chip fabs, each time they switch to a new 'era' of cpu's, now add this to the different fields of scientific research that are involved in VR and add the unknown as an x-multiplier...

Now add the computational complexity theory and you see that VR research is more like the P versus NP problem, when it comes to defining goals and creating solutions, to problems and technical limitations, which can only be addressed with resources and time vectors.

Some problems even Wolfram Alpha cannot answer you definitively?

Alan Barton
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"Imagine how much went into research of Jet-engines, the Space Shuttle, cancer research etc, now add how much money it takes AMD or Intel to build their new chip fabs"

They are all vastly larger engineering tasks than the task of building a VR headset. Note I say, "A" VR headset, not the worlds best every VR headset, because change is always incremental, (although the amount of that "incremental" is largely proportional to money). Its great if they wish and can now throw billions at that task, but we could have made use of any good low cost VR headset. Improvements in mobile phone displays and economies of scale could have brought low cost VR to market years ago, its just no one push the idea. Oculus fundametally helped there in highlighting the desire to see VR finally happen.

The problem is the ever grandious scale of this VR goal could end up working against them, where a competitor could come to market before them and get established before they are ready to come to market.

Lawrence Mak
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Unfortunately organic growth can take a long long time, and if Oculus were to remain as a boutique game peripherals company, relying on sales from such a niche sector of the market, that growth may takes years or even never come. They then have to continue to rely on existing off the shelf components for their future products, having their operating profit as their only source of funding for all future R&D.

Having such a large injection of funding ensures that Oculus can now put more resources into development, to get CV1 the absolute best custom hardware at the targeted price point (4k display?).

Do the founders get to make tons of money? Sure, but they are very likely performance-related and the stock options vested for five to six years anyway, so both financially and ethically they better get the job done or they'll get very little return and, even worse, disgraced by the whole industry.

Alex Covic
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I was inviting you to look beyond the headset, Alan.

It's about the future grid (as Raph Koster wrote earlier this week) - "it's not about the rendering".

Alan Barton
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My point was that future would still have happened even if Facebook hand not bought them.

Ryan Christensen
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Wow so you have Abrash, Carmack, Luckey together working on VR and funded by another genius (who also happens to have billions to fund it) Zuckerberg, it might happen for real this time. Starting to feel like the VR times we are in might mimic the advancements of physics and the genius around that in the early 1900s. I thought Luckey was smart to bring in Carmack then Zuckerberg has all three working for him, definitely won the game and using money in a way others can only dream.

Alan Barton
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@"funded by another genius (who also happens to have billions to fund it) Zuckerberg"

I nearly threw up and choked on my Cornflakes this morning, hearing the words "genius" and "Zuckerberg" in the same sentence.

Wendelin Reich
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Alan, your disgust for the sale and for Zuckerberg is already all over this site. Could you, like, call it day now?

Ryan Christensen
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@Alan If you got Carmack and Abrash working with you on cool tech while having no funding worries ever, I'd call you a genius as well. Luckey is a smart dude as well, he brought in Carmack, got this whole thing going, and is really smart + project driven for 21, builds lasers in his spare time. Zuck built an app that everyone including your mom uses, so that is also pretty impressive aside from having all those guys work for you. So all four are really geniuses or at least really smart pioneers.

With that, Facebook is now mainstream. Facebook buying Oculus just made VR mainstream again and noticed in finance. So while game developers and gamers were sold (I backed it), the mainstream remembered it from the past VR experiences which sucked. All the VR guys are in one place, well funded, attracting more to it and there is a mainstream outlet for VR (Facebook) and funding will out in the market because of the deal. Now everyone is sold on it even if some developers and backers were surprised by it (even I felt a bit eh). I ultimately think it was a genius move.

Alan Barton
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Calling Zuckerberg a genius sounds sycophantic and I simply reacted to that. He copied the idea for creating yet another social network. That isn't genius. Every move since then is to tie it in with that social network. That isn't however genius.

As for Ryan Christensen's talk of Carmack and Abrash, you are playing a blatant straw man argument trying to misrepresent my position then attack that misrepresention. I didn't mention them at all. I have a lot of respect for both of them. You played a blatant straw man argument, it was only about (genius == Zuckerberg) I was simply responding too and I tried to do it with a bit of humour.

Calling Zuckerberg a genius sounds sycophantic and it makes your apprasal sound like you are trying to suck up to Zuckerberg, I guess hoping you might get some business. But you won't, there will be far bigger fish seeking a business tie in now than you.

We all accept VR is coming and Facebook buying Oculus will help make VR happen. I've never said it wouldn't. But then there is very evidently so much interest in VR, that VR will happen no matter what Facebook does. Our entire industry benefits whoever wins the VR hardware battle to be the dominant company.

As for Carmack, I've looked up to his work thoughtout my career with a great deal of respect for what he has repeatedly achieved. He is an endless source of inspiration. I've also seen and heard of Michael Abrash thoughtout my career and I've think I've still got one of his books going back about 25 years! so I do very much know he is extremely good. Both of them in the same company, any company, is an amazing oppotunity for any company.

Ryan Christensen
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So your rebuttal to the points about fallacious statements is led with fallacies and attacking the messenger? Sychophantic? Because I can see that taking mainstream isn't a bad idea, how do you think most people will hear about it? Did you back the Oculus? I got an early dev kit, I guess this was all for my love of Zuck though.

"Calling Zuckerberg a genius sounds sycophantic and it makes your apprasal sound like you are trying to suck up to Zuckerberg, I guess hoping you might get some business. But you won't, there will be far bigger fish seeking a business tie in now than you."

Wow is all I have to say. I sure hope Zuck reads this thread so I can get a deal! I was only stating he was a very smart man (yes lots of it can be attributed to timing) and I saw the good side in it going mainstream, I think it will lead to lots of interesting gaming projects and funding because of the spotlight on it now. Most people would not hear of it if not for Facebook and them pushing it so I can see how this might be beneficial. Plus he got all those guys a ton of money and convinced very smart people to work for him. If you get geniuses working for you and make them rich and empower them to create awesome VR is that genius? I guess not.

From the article about Abrash's decision:
"To read Abrash tell it, Facebook's recent acquisition of Oculus VR influenced his decision by rendering virtual reality development a viable career path."

Alan Barton
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@"and I saw the good side in it going mainstream"
That's a problem right there. You are not seeing and talking about both sides.

No deal is all good or all bad. There are good things to come out of this and there are bad things.

Lots of money does help speed up the goal ... theres a very big good and I've said it before.

But you are pushing the good so hard that you don't want people to talk about the bad.

Frankly I'm tired of talking about this whole subject. I've got far better things to do than follow this news.

What will happen will happen, whatever I or any of us do, or think, or say. Hopefully they will listen to so many peoples concerns but in the end, its going to be a case of us all having to wait and watch now, to see what happens and hopefully, very hopefully it'll turn out for the good.

Alan Barton
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Hi, in a followup to what I said, about hopefully they will listen, I've just found this news ... If anyone is interested in posting, John Carmack is asking, "What are the hazards? What should be done to guard against them? What are the tests for failure? Blog and I'll read."

Here's the link:
https://twitter.com/ID_AA_Carmack/status/449594122936922112

Ryan Christensen
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Carmack commented here: http://peterberkman.tumblr.com/post/80827337212/wrong-and-right-r
easons-to-be-upset-about-oculus#disqus_thread

The last paragraph is a bit troubling.

He said:

I share some of your misgivings about companies "existing and operating only to be acquired". I am a true believer in market economies, and the magic of trade being a positive sum game is most obvious with repeated transactions at a consumer level. Company acquisitions, while still (usually) being a trade between willing parties that in theory leaves both better off, have much more of an element of speculation rather than objective assessment of value, and it definitely feels different.

There is a case to be made for being like Valve, and trying to build a new VR ecosystem like Steam from the ground up. This is probably what most of the passionate fans wanted to see. The difference is that, for years, the industry though Valve was nuts, and they had the field to themselves. Valve deserves all their success for having the vision and perseverance to see it through to the current state.

VR won't be like that. The experience is too obviously powerful, and it makes converts on contact. The fairly rapid involvement of the Titans is inevitable, and the real questions were how deeply to partner, and with who.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting Facebook (or this soon). I have zero personal background with them, and I could think of other companies that would have more obvious synergies. However, I do have reasons to believe that they get the Big Picture as I see it, and will be a powerful force towards making it happen. You don't make a commitment like they just did on a whim.

I wasn't personally involved in any of the negotiations -- I spent an afternoon talking technology with Mark Zuckerberg, and the next week I find out that he bought Oculus.

Alan Barton
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@"trying to build a new VR ecosystem like Steam from the ground up"

Yeah that's exactly what I suspected. They are now a direct threat to Valve. In a way, its kind of good news for the games industry, in that we get another distributor, (although it will be almost certainly 30%, plus the cost of having to deal with another lot of DRM + lock-in), but its bad news for Valve and all of what they are trying to build and Facebook will fragmenting the market if/when they try this. But I've thought from the moment I heard this Facebook deal, they sound like a massive business threat to Valve. This move therefore places serious doubt on Oculus now appearing on Steam consoles. I can't see any console company wanting another company store front on their console. That just won't happen. They won't give another company that kind of control over their console.

It therefore means the potential market size via Steam for Oculus just shrank, as Facebook want to be a new Steam. That didn't work out so well for EA, but it looks like Facebook are interested in using Oculus like a console ecosystem with their own DRM store which I guess will make it larger than EA's store. Which means we will have to deal with a more fragmented market and Valve are playing VR catchup. Unless they buy CastAR, which would make a lot of sense.


@"I spent an afternoon talking technology with Mark Zuckerberg, and the next week I find out that he bought Oculus."

In a previous job (a tech startup) we got this (the tech people kept in the dark).

A big company came around asking questions, they seemed very interested in what we were doing, far more than other customers we were working with, so it seems suspicious, because it felt like an audit of our processes, but we were told nothing by management. I even said to the boss at the time, it felt like an audit and he tried to laugh it off and lied his way out of my question, but at the time I didn't know he was lying. Then far too late, I hear they were in talks to buy us. We only found out in the last few days before a potential acquisition press release and we were in the running against a couple of other companies, one of which were about to be bought for a huge amount. In the end, they didn't buy us, they bought another company :) ... but it left me feeling how much the workers were kept in the dark.

Its experiences like this is why I think John Carmack & Michael Abrash will find they doesn't have as much influence as they hope and certainly not as much influence as they should have in the company. Any company should be very happy to have them work for them, but all too often, it doesn't seem to workout the way it should. The money people only often tell the tech people on a need to know basis and they only tell you once there is no chance anyone could point out alternatives. They don't want the tech people to tell them what needs to be done and with Facebook, that is a danger that needs to be guarded against, because of how they want to datamine spy for advertising.

I guess time will tell what happens, but the outcome is all too likely unfortunately.

Ron Dippold
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I hope he asked for a salary of ohhhhh... $2B.


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