How Giving a Demo to Mark Zuckerberg Changed How I View VR

I have witnessed the VR space grow from infancy, back to the Stanford Virtual laboratory for human interaction. I was there when Mark Zuckerberg came in to demonstrate the technology, and it completely changed the way I looked at VR. Here’s my memory of February 13, 2014:

It was by far the most important VR tour of the thousands I’ve given in the lab. We built demos, prototypes and, most importantly, conducted social science experiments. We also met a lot of powerful people, but meeting Mark Zuckerberg was different.

Before he arrived, his personal bodyguards walked through the room to make sure it was safe. After they arrived, we asked our guests to demonstrate a few scenes: walking across a plank, flying through a city, cutting down a tree and looking at their avatars in a virtual mirror. At first I was afraid they wouldn’t be impressed. During the plank demo, the floor opened to reveal a huge pit, Zuckerberg immediately put his hand on his heart in shock. These worries disappeared and I was proud to have provoked such a visible reaction from Mark.

However, the tour was far from perfect. Tracking that day was more jittery than usual, and I recalibrated it a few times during its visit. It really didn’t look good. We built the lab with custom infrared tracking, and sometimes I couldn’t predict how the system would perform on any given day. It was still early days for that technology and we hoped that Mark himself would be sympathetic as an engineer.

In the demo room, Jeremy Bailenson gave a charismatic pitch while I sat on the other side of the glass, pulling the strings on everyone’s VR headsets. This “Wizard of Oz” system allowed us to control the demos, rather than giving visitors full control over their virtual worlds. In the middle of the tour I had a strange realization. Here I was checking out exactly what Mark Zuckerberg saw, felt and experienced. Normally he is in control of our virtual experience.

I could manipulate Zuckerberg’s senses, and his brain would have to work hard to convince itself it wasn’t real. At that point, I was applying an incredible amount of force, and I absolutely hated the way it felt. Who was I to push the buttons of someone else’s brain? Shortly after the visit, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for $2.3 billion. In retrospect, Zuckerberg may have only visited us as part of his commitment to that deal, confirming that no one there had better VR tech than what Oculus was working on.

More importantly, I wondered if Zuckerberg had thought about how much power he had unconsciously given to me, the driver of his VR headset. Did he know how easy it was to pop someone in VR? Was that why he wanted to buy Oculus in the first place? Over the years I’ve thought a lot about this moment, and I’ve come to think that it’s very likely that Zuckerberg realized all this, probably even before I did. What’s cooler than Facebook in two dimensions? Facebook in three dimensions.

That acquisition of Oculus was a major catalyst in making VR mainstream. It advanced our digital spaces in ways we don’t yet understand. I’m honored to have been there at that moment, pushing the brain buttons of the man who built systems that had already pressed mine. I hope for all of us that he exercises this power responsibly.

Cody Woputz worked at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University from 2010-2016 and the opinions shared here are his only. He is a technologist specializing in using real-time 3D engines to push AR/VR in responsible, new ways. He is currently a co-founder at Receipts and has an MS in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University. If you have a SteamVR headset, you can check out some of the experiences Zuckerberg saw by downloading Stanford’s Virtual Becomes Reality for free on Steam

This story originally appeared on Twitter and is reprinted here as a guest post with permission from Woputz.

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