Oculus Research Q&A: Douglas Lanman

Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
February 1, 2018

This week, we’re introducing you to the team behind Oculus Research’s multifocal perceptual testbed. Five days, five researchers, five questions each. So far, we’ve heard from Optical Scientist Yusufu Sulai, Research Scientist Marina Zannoli, and Research Scientist Kevin MacKenzie. Today, we’re highlighting Computational Imaging Director Douglas Lanman.

Tell us a little about your background.

Douglas Lanman: I’ve always been deeply interested in 3D imaging: How do we build cameras and displays to flawlessly record and reproduce reality? In short, I want to build the holodeck—well, not just the holodeck, but a holodeck you can carry with you anywhere. It took quite a while to prepare for a career in computational imaging and displays. I completed my undergrad in Applied Physics at Caltech in 2002 and my MS and PhD in Electrical Engineering at Brown University in 2006 and 2010, respectively. During that time, I mostly worked on 3D cameras, not displays. Afterward, I joined the MIT Media Lab and spent several years there developing new types of glasses-free 3D TVs. I first worked on applications of these technologies to augmented and virtual reality at NVIDIA Research, where I was a Senior Research Scientist for a couple years before joining Oculus.

What brought you to Oculus?

DL: I’ve learned in my career that display and imaging technologies are incredibly demanding from an engineering perspective. It takes a small army of very talented engineers (and a couple scientists) to create a compelling VR or AR prototype. After talking with Michael Abrash, it was clear he understood what it would take to create a world-changing technology like VR/AR, and it has been a pleasure being part of growing Oculus Research to what it is today. Over the last three years, I’ve learned how to work with large engineering teams, tailor my research to the realities of consumer products, and also juggle a much larger portfolio of research projects than I had before coming here.

What’s your favorite thing about working at Oculus Research?

DL: My favorite thing about working at Oculus Research is that it’s a team sport. As a graduate student, you get in a mindset that you need to do everything yourself—in many cases, due to lack of resources, you do need to be an army of one at a university. Before arriving at Oculus, I was used to shouldering everything from aligning optical components to worrying about Oxford commas when writing the technical report. I’ve learned that impactful research is mostly about finding the right small set of people to tackle a hard problem together. Thanks to the scale of Oculus Research and the confidence I have in my colleagues, I now enjoy working on so many projects at the same time that sometimes it’s easy to lose track.

What was your very first VR experience? How about your most memorable one?

DL: I first experienced VR in the early 1990s. While on a family trip to Texas, we stopped at an arcade that happened to have a two-player Dactyl Nightmare gaming machine. Depending on your age and enthusiasm for arcades, you may have missed this, but if you squint, these systems weren’t so far away from the concepts underpinning today’s VR experiences. Sure, the headsets were bulky, the displays were low-resolution, and the content was rudimentary by today’s standards, but the memory of running through a simple virtual world with my brother has stuck with me for decades. It wasn’t just my first VR experience, it was my first social gaming experience—just seeing my brother converted into a low-resolution polygonal nemesis was remarkable at the time.

Since that early experience, I’ve had occasional glimpses of our VR future, including Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, John Carmack’s Doom and Quake, my own prototyping attempts, and the first duct-taped Oculus demo units. However, it wasn’t until I walked into Oculus headquarters in Irvine in 2014 that I understood that future was about to be realized. It was then that I met Michael Abrash (Chief Scientist) and Atman Binstock (Chief Architect) to talk about joining the team and helping launch the world’s largest VR/AR research lab. What I saw that day (an early version of what became the Rift) brought all the memories from Texas back. It was something I couldn’t wait to help develop for my own children—a portal to another world, Dactyl Nightmares and all!

How do you think VR and AR will impact our daily lives in the years to come?

DL: For me, the “killer app” for VR/AR is obvious. We’re social creatures, but ones that increasingly live far apart from our friends and loved ones. I want to sometimes pop on my headset rather than always jump on an airplane to see my family. It’s not just about closing our separation in space, but also in time. I want to give my great-great-great-grandchildren a tour of my home. I want them to laugh at our televisions everywhere as such wasted spaces for art. Making this vision a reality isn’t just about VR/AR displays—it’s as much about building a flawless camera to record reality with.

Thanks for taking the time to sit down with us, Doug. We can’t wait to see what you and your team(s) come up with next.

Click here to learn more about Lanman’s work at Oculus Research, and check back tomorrow for another Q&A!

— The Oculus Team