The disappearing inventor

Mark Bolas, a professor at USC, an astonishingly prolific innovator, has invented or co-invented many things. One of those things was FOV2GO, an ingenious way to make a very inexpensive, very wide angle virtual reality display.

You start with two really inexpensive lenses, put a SmartPhone screen a few inches away, and wrap the whole thing in an inexpensive housing — which can even be cardboard. If you already have a SmartPhone, you can make one yourself for a few dollars in parts.

One of the students working on this project — Palmer Luckey — spun the basic idea out into a start-up company, Oculus Rift, which added an orientation tracker, more solid packaging and support software, and was recently purchased by Facebook for two billion dollars.

As you might have guessed, Mark is not now wealthy.

This week I’m at the FMX conference, and it seems that at nearly every session Palmer Luckey’s name comes up, but Mark Bolas is never mentioned.

I don’t want to take anything away from Palmer’s contribution. It takes a lot of work to make a successful commercial enterprise, including a level of financial investment, marketing and engineering that is simply not needed in an academic project.

So yes, I understand why Mark is not getting the financial payoff here. Still, in all the hype in the press and elsewhere, shouldn’t a primary inventor of the technology at least be mentioned?

Shouldn’t an inventor get at least a little credit for his own invention?

13 thoughts on “The disappearing inventor”

  1. Perhaps he doesnt want an avalanche of attention. Who knows what his financial take is?

  2. Not to take away from Mark or Palmer, but these designs go back at least to the early 1900’s Stereoscopes! Some even involved recording lenses to negate the warping to allow inexpensive viewing lenses ( which is done in the Occulus rift using OpenGL generated images ). I’ve done it myself using my camera display as well as phone. You’ll see it’s been done with every new display technology through the years.. photo, slides, tv, lcd. It’s finally truly coming of age with todays portable high resolution displays and tracking technologies… exciting times.

    The patent for this has long ago expired.. but I’m looking forward to seeing the patent-worthy improvements. Curved screens, focus-free projectors etc. enable obvious and I’m sure, non-obvious improvements.

  3. Waterless paper processing means he gets to help them redesign it with all obtuse folds…maybe not the focus of proofs at FMX?

    Bolas also cut the name down from stereodagguerotypes, dislodged some hangups about producing over 34000lpi, and seems to have cut out that noise cross-cutting to-do we all had with the National Geographic viewers. He seems to have a good lien on grateful students of film # papercraft, so funded ideas will appropriately enough be all right. How though, will he feed all the Ocu-chan?

    I am not uninterested in how a Coursera instructor can pay on a house in SoCal in under 3 more classes; but if I have to hit every OK as well as brilliant inspiration back before I hit production much less a dividend, I am going to have to leverage my lease on research facilities out through more universes than 11 branes allow.

  4. “Mark is not now wealthy” makes perfect sense. Natural language is a glorious thing.

  5. Well in this case patent is a must have and most likely Mark will have to sue if he wants some cash or name in the contributors list…

  6. Mark: Palmer is clearly sincere. I don’t want to take anything away from him and all his hard work. As both Mark and Palmer have pointed out, the general space of “inexpensive optics and hardware accelerated anti-distortion” was already in play.

    In a way, some of this comes down to whether or not you consider the Wide5 to be the progenitor of what came later.

    Palmer’s contribution to the field is wonderful, and will certainly continue to be. I just think that Mark shouldn’t have been written out of the public narrative so completely.

  7. It’s frustrating when people are unaware of – or uninterested in – the full history of how something came to be, but where do you draw the line? At what point does something become an invention rather than just another iteration?

    I don’t think there’s a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the contributions that Mark, and many others, have made to bring things to where they are now, except perhaps in the form of the eagerness of the press to distance this ‘new’ VR from what’s perceived as the failure of it in the 90s.

    Those who make contributions to a field prior to it reaching critical mass and becoming ubiquitous are always unlikely to get as much recognition as those that place the piece of the puzzle which pushes it past the tipping point. But others who’re deeply involved in the field will recognize, and will remember.

    Some of us even remember who came up with the first shading language. 🙂

  8. Speaking as a passionate advocate for VR, (for most of my 20 career), I think the generational manifestations of VR should not be viewed as success or failure.

    As practical design engineers, Palmer and Mark would be the first to admit you have to make the best of what you got! Polhumeus yesterday, with tardy firmware tracking analog AC magnetic fields – real time MEMS mags and rate state components tomorrow.

    Now the iPhone has revolutionized mobile computing, its not like we all accuse Steve Jobs of failure with Newton – its all one step at a time toward the common goal.

    Sensory immersion and the medium VR has yet to become a consumer reality but hopefully will in all our lifetime. Its too larger a task for any individual to be assigned “creator” status, given the engineering and physics yet to be solved – for a device that will truely induce behavioral change as the smartphone has.

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