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Expert in virtual-reality devices to talk about history, future of the technology at Burbank library

Virtual-reality devices have crept into the mainstream as they become more readily available for consumers, but they have existed in various forms for five decades.

With social media giant Facebook purchasing the technology company Oculus VR in 2014, author Blake J. Harris looks at the future of the technology in his latest book, “The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution that Swept Virtual Reality.”

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Harris will be at the Buena Vista Branch Library in Burbank at 7 p.m. Thursday, along with Joe Chen, one of the first employees at Oculus, for a free event to talk about how virtual reality has found its way into increased use and where it goes from here.

Virtual reality has been around since the 1960s, Harris said during an interview on Tuesday. There were some devices available for the public, but they were expensive and required an equally expensive computer to operate them.

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“It was mostly resigned to academia until 1990 when a company called VPL [Research] had a device called an EyePhone,” Harris said. “Those were considered to be the first consumer VR headsets, but the EyePhone was like $10,000, and you needed like a billion-dollar computer to run it.”

Later in the 1990s, Nintendo released its Virtual Boy console, which Harris thought at the time was the start of a boom in virtual-reality devices.

However, the console never really caught on and consumer virtual-reality devices didn’t gain traction in popularity.

“People said the graphics for these devices were janky, which is true in today’s lens,” Harris said. “But if you look at the original Playstation, those graphics were janky, too. I don’t think the graphics were sub-par for its time, but at the end of the day it was more of a chicken-and-egg situation with the hardware and software.”

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He said the only way virtual reality was going to find success was if the software and games for the device justified spending large amounts of money for a headset.

However, Harris said companies were not willing to create major software and games if the devices didn’t exist.

That’s where Oculus VR came in. Harris thinks the company, started by Long Beach native Palmer Luckey in 2012, was able to bridge the gap between offering affordable hardware for consumers and backing it with worthwhile games.

“I was really careful not to use this pun in the book because it was cheesy, but [Luckey] was very lucky to be born when he was and to be working on VR at this time,” Harris said.

Despite being as popular as it is now, Harris said people need to remember that virtual reality was seen as a technological punchline, alongside jetpacks and flying cars, adding that consumers were still skeptical when Oculus first announced its prototype in 2012.

What pushed Oculus and virtual reality into popularity, Harris said, was the fact that Luckey was genuinely interested in the technology and wanted it to succeed.

Since 2012, other manufacturers like HTC and Sony have created consumer-ready devices and have pushed virtual reality further into the mainstream.

However, with Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, combined with privacy issues surrounding social-media companies, Harris said it will be interesting to see how those concerns will be addressed.

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“Virtual reality and augmented reality are such intimate technologies — they’re literally on your face tracking your eye and head movements and there’s cameras tracking wherever you are,” he said. “If someone wanted to use that data for different purposes or agendas, this is a goldmine of data.”

The Buena Vista Branch Library is located at 300 N. Buena Vista St., Burbank. For more information, call (818) 238-5620.

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