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Will the Next Classroom Disruption Be in 3-D? Facebook’s Virtual-Reality Company Thinks So

Brendan Iribe, chief executive of Oculus VR. (Getty Images)


College Park, Md. — Brendan Iribe dropped out of the University of Maryland here, but before he did he amassed 227 parking tickets. And he managed to meet two business partners who would help him build the virtual-reality company Oculus VR, which Facebook bought this year for about $2-billion.

One of those parking tickets remains unpaid, but the university is likely to forgive it after Friday, when he gave $31-million to erect a computer-science building. That makes Mr. Iribe, who is 35 years old, the institution’s most generous donor ever.

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In part to avoid parking rules and other pesky annoyances of the real world, Mr. Iribe is now one of the most hyperbolic pitchmen for a future in which people wear headsets and enter immersive virtual worlds. “It really is going to be transformative, maybe even be bigger than computers and everything that we’ve seen so far,” he said on Friday at an event where he signed away part of his newfound fortune.

The Chronicle later sat down with Mr. Iribe for an interview—in the real world—to talk about what classrooms might look like with VR goggles:

Q. What does your broader vision for Oculus Rift and virtual reality mean for higher education? How big of a role do you see your VR headset playing in the education sector?

A. When we started the company and saw the very first demo, it was a video-game demo. It was a Doom demo ported to VR, and I looked at it and I thought, Wow, this is going to be a small niche product or technology that we could investigate and do something neat with for gaming. But as we were marching along, we started to realize it was going to be a lot more important and have a lot more impact than just gaming.

We believe this is going to be one of the most transformative platforms for education of all time. I know, it’s easy to say, hard to prove. But time will tell. There’s this thing that happens when you see really great VR. And most of the world hasn’t seen it yet. Maybe only 1,000 people have seen really great VR that tricks your brain, the back of the brain, into thinking that it’s a real place. And when you get that, you suddenly get the feeling, and it’s not like I’m looking at a video game or some kind of entertainment experience. It’s like you’re in a virtual place.

We showed the folks from the Smithsonian, we showed folks from a number of different industries—the automobile industry, the architecture industry—we’ve shown people the latest prototype, and they’ve gotten incredibly excited about the visualization aspect.

Imagine, you could scan in everything in the Smithsonian—they have 130 million objects. Let’s get 10 percent of them or 20 percent of them. You could put on a pair of … sunglasses, and with those sunglasses you could see those objects and you could look around and you could see it so well and so clearly, and it would track so perfectly that your brain would believe it was really right in front of you.

The next step past that is when you have shared space, and not only do you believe that this object is right there in front of me, but I look around and I see other people just like we see each other now, and I really, truly believe that you’re right in front of me. We can look at each others’ eyes. If you look down at something, I can look down at the same time. And it’s every bit as good as this. And if we can make virtual reality every bit as good as real reality in terms of communications and the sense of shared presence with others, you can now educate people in virtual classrooms, you can now educate people with virtual objects, and we can all be in a classroom together [virtually], we can all be present, we can have relationships and communication that are just as good as the real classroom.

Q. But in donating money to put up a new computer-science building at Maryland, you stressed the importance of the physical campus to bring people together and collaborate. Do you worry that the vision you’re painting takes people away from the physical presence of working together in this physical space that we’re in?

A. The way your brain works is you have two eyes that are cameras. … And they’re capturing this physical space, and it’s building a model in your brain, and your brain is taking these frames from your eyes and it’s building this model. And now you’re enjoying this model, and you’re talking to people and looking at things, and this model is living in your brain, and you’re happy with it. Your eyes and your inner ear match up, and it all feels right.

Well, why can’t you simulate that? Why can’t you put on a pair of sunglasses and have an experience that is just as good as this, that in your brain, in that mental model, is every bit as 3-D? We haven’t hugged yet. We haven’t touched each other that I remember. We may have shaken hands. But for the most part when you’re in school or when you’re in a classroom, you’re not jumping around and hugging each other. Most of the time that you’re communicating with people face to face. You can simulate that. It’s hard to understand, and you think it can’t be as good as the real thing, until you try it. And you look around, and your brain says, this is all good.

Q. There’s been talk of VR in education in the past, and it’s never worked. Why do you think it’s going to work this time?

A. Because the hardware just wasn’t ready in the past. People had incredible ambition. They had the idea. Everyone was dreaming about it. They were making movies about it in the 80s. But it never worked. Every time you put it on, you looked around, and it made you dizzy. You wanted to take them off. It made you sick. Even in the Oculus Development Kit 2, it’s pretty good. It gives these hints of presence, but it’s not truly there. But we have this prototype internally. It’s what we showed Marc Andreessen to get the funding. It’s what we showed Marc Zuckerberg to get the partnership. That prototype convinces the brain that we’re good, and nobody gets sick.

Q. But again, it’s ironic that you just donated for a university building. Do you still see a need for universities to have physical locations to do research and teaching?

A. Absolutely. I mean, I think there are a lot of great reasons for universities. This is the way that things work today, so you don’t go out and disrupt and change the whole university system overnight. Even if it’s an online system, these things take time.

There’s also an element of this that really works for students that aren’t ready to go out in the real world on their own. When I was 17 or 18, I wasn’t really ready to live by myself and have no structure of any kind. And I think that college is a time where you get these entirely great memories, and a lot of relationships that come out of that, and you get this final set of a few years of discipline and structure, and it’s those last few steps before you’re ready to go out on your own. And you’re not going to get those last few steps, necessarily, by putting on a headset in your house. You do need to get that here on campus. There’s going to be a reason for the physical space for a very long time. And for physical education for a very long time.

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