COLLEGE PARK – Tech innovator Brendan Iribe has a penchant for ambitious goals. His first company aimed to make software better than what Microsoft and Apple had to offer — with just three employees.
Five penniless years passed before Iribe tasted success. But now, he’s the CEO of a tech company worth $2 billion.
Fresh off of his company’s March 25 acquisition by Facebook, Iribe addressed criticisms about the acquisition and teased the future of his company’s unique virtual reality headset during a speech at the University of Maryland Friday afternoon.
Virtual reality is a term used to describe video games or other computer experiences that are vastly more immersive than what traditional game consoles can provide. Virtual reality convinces the user that they are not simply controlling an avatar in an artificial world, but that they are in the artificial world themselves.
Iribe’s revolutionary product, the Oculus Rift, is a virtual reality system designed for video games. It takes the form of a pair of goggles that project two images into each eye and tracks where the player’s head moves, altering the view of the game world accordingly. The technology was created by Palmer Luckey, who had originally made a working version of the Rift with duct tape and hot glue, according to Iribe.
But when Iribe tried the system for himself, he knew he’d seen something special. It wasn’t the first attempt to create virtual reality for video games, but it was far cheaper than previous iterations. And that meant it just might work.
“It is incredible to work with a small team on a big idea. So, what bigger idea than virtual reality?” said the CEO of Oculus VR.
The acquisition by Facebook was met with some backlash from the video game community, many of whom feared a lack of independence would ruin Oculus’ innovation. Markus “Notch” Persson, the developer of the wildly popular game Minecraft, publicly announced a severing of ties with Oculus after the acquisition, saying on Twitter “Facebook creeps me out.”
Iribe, a former Maryland student, defended the acquisition, citing the massive costs of turning his vision for Oculus into a reality. He said the necessary technology for a new piece of gaming hardware often costs around $1 billion. Before the Facebook acquisition, Oculus had raised about $100 million.
Iribe said that Facebook’s massive user base and available capital was exactly what Oculus needed to succeed. When confronted with the costs of achieving the goals for Oculus, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, “Well, we have a lot of money,” according to Iribe.
Iribe said that Facebook had the ability and resources to make Oculus and virtual reality affordable and commercially viable. He added that it was not in Facebook’s best interest to overrun Oculus’s independence, citing Instagram and WhatsApp as companies acquired by the social media giant without losing independence.
“Frankly, we didn’t want to be acquired. We wanted to be independent,” said Iribe. “But when we saw this partnership and how much sense it made, we really wanted to … go into the partnership if it meant we could stay Oculus and stay who we are. We’d keep our Oculus hoodies, we’d keep our Oculus email addresses, and we’d really keep our independence.”
While he emphasized that the team’s primary focus is gaming, Iribe said that there were many other fields that could benefit from Oculus and other virtual reality systems. He said he hoped that Oculus could eventually be used in the medical, architectural, communication and even travel industries.
Oculus was far from Iribe’s first entrepreneurial endeavor in games, however. While still a student at Maryland in 1999, he and two other students created the company that later become Scaleform, an application for designing video game interfaces. However, the company made “exactly zero dollars and zero cents” until five years after its creation. After Scaleform was bought by Autodesk, Iribe led another video game company, Gaikai, until it was bought by Sony, not long before he got involved with Oculus.
Iribe said he has not forgotten the lessons learned during the lengthy dry spell despite Oculus VR’s tremendous growth.
“You just have to keep with it,” he said. “Most of the time, these things don’t happen nearly as fast as, say, Oculus.”