Gaming Accessories

​Oculus founder: Virtual reality gear will displace smartphones

It won't happen for years, but today's highest-tech smartphones eventually will look like primitive slabs of electronics, says Palmer Luckey of Facebook's virtual reality division.

Palmer Luckey, shown at Web Summit 2015, founded the company that Facebook scooped up for $2 billion last year.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

DUBLIN -- Today people line up for hours to buy a smartphone that embodies the latest in high technology. Years from now, that phone will seem like a relic as people switch to virtual reality tech, predicted the founder of one of the highest-profile VR efforts.

"I believe it's going to be more ubiquitous than the smartphone," said Palmer Luckey, founder of the virtual reality company Oculus that Menlo Park, California-based Facebook acquired for $2 billion in 2014.

It's bold to predict the demise of a device that ships today by the billions, but virtual reality and augmented reality have what it takes, Palmer said Tuesday at the Web Summit tech conference here. Virtual reality presents an artificial, but seemingly real, 3D world through a headset that can track a person's head movements to ensure a sensation of full immersion. Augmented reality, advocated by startups like Magic Leap and embodied in Microsoft's forthcoming HoloLens product, overlays a virtual view atop the real world.

"Eventually AR and VR technology will converge and combine. You'll wear it all the time or carry it around with you all the time," and the VR gear will absorb the functions of today's smartphones even as it adds new abilities, Luckey said. "I'd be very surprised if 50 years from now we're still all carrying around slabs in our pockets when you can just project a virtual environment."

Virtual reality is a hot computing trend, heavily hyped as the future of gaming, learning and communications. TrendForce analyst Jason Tsai projects sales of 14 million VR devices in 2016, led by the Oculus-based headsets, the PlayStation VR from Japanese electronics giant Sony and the Vive from Taiwanese manufacturer HTC.

To succeed broadly, though, VR gear will have to become cheaper, shed its reliance on a tethered PC, and find a way to overcome the social stigma that can come with attaching bulky electronic goggles to your face.

Progress will come, Luckey said.

Today's virtual reality requires a high-end PC costing at least $1,000, he said. "Most people don't have that. In five or six years, most computers people own are going to be capable," he said. VR will start as a niche market, but eventually "almost anybody is going to have it."

Luckey, wearing shorts and a Hawaiian shirt, brings a youthful exuberance to a technology passion he's had since boyhood. "VR is a science fiction technology," said Luckey, who is 23. "It's right up there with space travel and time travel and artificial intelligence and flying cars."

Even when it's not as good as the real world, it's often better than what people actually have a chance to experience, he argued. Visiting a virtual Paris is an improvement over no Paris at all.