michael abrash gdc 2013 virtual reality talk

At GDC 2013, the legendary Michael Abrash took to the stage to talk about the Oculus Rift and virtual reality. Abrash, now working at Valve, has been researching augmented and virtual reality technology for the company. When he began his talk I thought he was discouraging virtual reality because of the many problems that need to be solved for a truly perfect VR experience. However, as he continued, I realized that he was actually being encouraging — he sees the problems ahead as challenges ripe to be solved by eager developers; this is an opportunity to define the future of gaming. Keep your eye on his blog for more on VR from Abrash.

Updated (4/1/13): Added videos in middle of presentation.

Michael Abrash’s GDC 2013 Presentation: Why Virtual Reality is Hard (and where it might be going)

MAbrash GDC2013

Good afternoon. I’m Michael Abrash, and I’m part of the group working on virtual reality at Valve. Today I’m going to share as much of what we’ve learned as I can cram into 25 minutes; I’m going to go fast and cover a lot of ground, so fasten your seat belts!

MAbrash GDC2013 (1)

17 years ago, I gave a talk at GDC about the technology John Carmack and I had developed for Quake.

That was the most fun I ever had giving a talk, because for me Quake was SF made real, literally.

You see, around 1994, I read Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, and instantly realized a lot of the Metaverse was doable then – and I badly wanted to be part of making it happen.

The best way I could see to do that was to join Id Software to work with John on Quake, so I did, and what we created there actually lived up to the dream Snow Crash had put into my head.

While it didn’t quite lead to the Metaverse – at least it hasn’t yet – it did lead to a huge community built around realtime networked 3D gaming, which is pretty close.

Helping to bring a whole new type of entertainment and social interaction into existence was an amazing experience, and it was all hugely exciting – but it’s easy to forget that Quake actually looked like this:

MAbrash GDC2013 (2)

And it took 15 years to get to this:

MAbrash GDC2013 (3)

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • WormSlayer

    My brain hurts! Still I’m excited that guys like him are excited :D

  • Patrick Hogenboom

    Thanks a bundle for transcribing the whole thing :)

  • shole

    If you want to view the two videos in the presentation and don’t have ms powerpoint, you can rename the .pptx file to .zip and the files are in there as .wmv under \ppt\media\

    • Michael Abrash


      Thank you very much for posting this!


  • Andrés

    Thanks so much for transcribing this!

  • Andreas Aronsson

    I thought I would not get to read/hear the actual talk in some time :D Very interesting, somewhat alarming, but at the end uplifting and inspiring! Thanks for this! Also, you could if you wanted to rename the .pptx to .zip and extract the videos (media folder) and upload them unlisted to Youtube and embed them on this page :) Just a thought!

  • Andreas Aronsson

    Ah, in the time it took me to read this (left the article half-read over night) shole already pointed this out :x oops.

  • Esse

    “That means that if you fixate on something while you turn your head, your eyes remain fixed with respect to the real world, but move very quickly relative to the display”

    Hum, no. If your eyes are fixed (in the head referential), they are fixed in the display referential. Because the display & the head are fixed one to the other.

    This is over complicating the subject. Only matters the head movement. Not the eyes movements.

    • Ben

      I think that, in this context, “fixate on something” means a visual fixation on an object in the external world rather than having the eyes be “fixed” relative to the head. If the head is turning while you fixate an external object, the eyes must counter-rotate in order to maintain a stable fixation (eg: via the VOR). Since the VR display is attached to your head frame, this means that your eyes are rotating relative to the display, and that’s the source of the large relative motion that causes issues.

      • Michael Abrash


        You’re correct – that’s what I meant. If you look at a key on the keyboard and keep doing that while you turn your head, you can easily get your eyes moving at several hundred degrees per second relative to the display.


  • Esse

    “The human perceptual system has evolved to be very effective at detecting such anomalies, because anomalies might be thinking about eating you, or might be tasty.”

    It is not some specific “anomalies detection system”, rather that the human brain has in-depth “routines” to analyse the space & movement, and when you broke the rules the routines fail.

    Like when you are sick in a car.

    So I guess the reaction will not be fear or drooling, more puking.

  • Ben Humberston

    Thanks for the transcript for those of us who couldn’t be there!

  • Mattso

    Yeah, just echoing the sentiments above that having it all transcribed meant I actually got to digest it really quickly. Many thanks!

    Very informative stuff – and here was me thinking it was gonna be easy. :)