VR Headset Developer Steven LaValle Chose Oulu

VR headset developer Steven LaValle chose Oulu

Getting VR right needs a fluid connection between technology and human experience - VR expert Steven LaValle chose Oulu.

Steven LaValle, a famed roboticist and a pioneer in Virtual Reality (VR) perception technology intends to bring many different disciplines together to work on VR and its applications in the era of next-generation networking. LaValle, whose background includes creating two patents for Oculus before Facebook acquired the VR company, has set his and his family’s roots firmly in Oulu.

LaValle’s journey to Oulu has involved a few turns. As an academic working in the United States LaValle originally wrote an influential book on robot motion planning, control theory and artificial intelligence (AI) called Planning Algorithms, in 2006. The book was highly visible on the Internet largely due to the fact that he was distributing it free of charge, and would eventually catch the attention of the founders of Oculus, makers of the Oculus Rift VR headset.

“Right after their successful Kickstarter campaign, they were looking for someone to make the head tracking work. I was already in Oulu on a sabbatical from the University of Illinois at the time, and I started consulting them with my wife, Anna,” LaValle explains.

LaValle carried on consulting work for Oculus, based in California. He had the only prototype of the Oculus Rift outside of California at the time, and he jokes that his apartment in the Puolivälinkangas neighborhood of Oulu was Oculus’ secret lab.

Yeah, you just take out the ‘c’ and the ‘s’ in ‘Oculus’ and you get Oulu

After six months, LaValle joined the company full-time. Some 12 months after that, Facebook acquired Oculus for a whopping 3 billion USD. While some would take a successful exit as a chance to transition to a full-time investor, LaValle says he was always more of an academic type. And so LaValle, a professor of computer science and engineering, in particular robotics and VR, eventually came back to Oulu after another stint at the University of Illinois.

“Well, I already knew professor Timo Ojala and professor Juha Röning from Oulu and quite frankly, they moved really fast to recruit me. I know the community here, I love the nature and I feel very at ease in Finland in general and in Oulu in particular. Also there is very interesting work done at the University, the 6G Flagship programme being a prime example of it. I am very excited about it,” LaValle explains.

Working on VR products, LaValle got into studying human perception. He realised that he had to learn things outside of his expertise, like vision science which is a branch of psychology.

“The human body is half of the system. Whatever you decide to blast to human eyes, you need to make sure you’re considering the physiology. Engineers get excited about the hardware and the software, but we need to bring in neurologists, physiologists, psychologists and so on. You really need more ‘ologists’ with this.”

“With VR, what you are engineering is perceptional illusion. You’re tricking the brain. We didn’t engineer ourselves as a species, and that’s why I like to say we are reverse-engineering human physiology and perception. And this is really important, because if I don’t get it right, people are uncomfortable, sometimes even to the point of vomiting,” LaValle deadpans.

With VR, the ‘killer app’ is yet to come. While entertainment--games and movies--has been touted as a no-brainer for VR applications, we are yet to see a truly transformative application in that area. LaValle is keen to point out that the technology provides a very strong first-person experience, which has the power to really affect society on many levels.

“I have had powerful experiences with VR. My student Katherine Mimnaugh created a panoramic video where you were a homeless person and could get a really strong first-person experience of it. I like the idea that this is really a new way of storytelling. The technology is full of potential to make people feel empathy and understand our differences and the things that are common to us,” LaValle says.

Bringing an immersive VR experience to reality does require technology and there are some hurdles to be crossed. Display technology is currently one of the bottlenecks in terms of latency and resolution, as well as physical size and weight. Wireless communications is also a factor. Computational needs have to be addressed as well, and everything needs to be ergonomic and comfortable to avoid nausea and fatigue for the human user.

“You don’t want to have heavy computational equipment strapped to your face, which means that we need to figure out where to do the heavy lifting, computation-wise. Is it in your pocket? A base station? Edge server? The network? Will you stream content, or will your experience be interactive? Different use cases have different demands for network performance and that’s why 6G Flagship fits nicely with our vision of VR,” LaValle says.

Text&photo: Janne-Pekka Manninen

Last updated: 10.5.2019