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How Raw Data was born: College dreams and a jury-rigged VR headset

"I remember when I went off to college...thinking, 'I love virtual reality. It doesn’t exist right now, but my goal in life is to figure out how to have a job in this nonexistent industry.'"
"I remember when I went off to college in 2008 and 2009 thinking, 'I love virtual reality. It doesn’t exist right now, but my goal in life is to figure out how to have a job in this nonexistent industry.'"

- Survios' James Iliff recalls his first steps into VR development

Survios’ first game Raw Data became the first VR title to rake in $1 million in sales in only a month’s time, but the game and the studio both had their own humble beginnings. In an oral history assembled by Glixel, four early members of the development team traced the game’s story all the way back to their college days, and later talked about where they see VR going in the future. 

The team discusses some design challenges VR devs might be familiar with already like locomotion and avoiding motion-sickness, but the oral history also runs through what it was like to be a VR developer, both on the hardware and software side, before the genre fully existed.

For James Iliff, that meant jumping from school to school and major to major to find an educational avenue for VR development. That journey eventually saw him land at USC where he’d meet Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, and fellow Survios devs Alex Silkin and Nate Burba.

The trio’s goal was ultimately to find a way to bring VR from the lab to living-rooms. One of their early prototypes tried to use four Kinects hooked up to one another to track objects in a virtual space. While the quadri-Kinect didn’t end up working out, Iliff says that the kind of Frankenstein approach of that project carried through to their other attempts.

“Nate and I ended up going to a sporting goods store and bought some ski masks, and glued the headsets into them,” recalls Iliff. “That’s how we got our visual aspect. This was early 2012, we got a really strong head start. We were the first to do motion-tracked hands in a virtual environment. That had not existed at all.”

The system that the team eventually got up and running used a laptop backpack to power a head-mounted display and a duo of Razer Hydra motion controllers. 

Following their USC days, Burba, Iliff, and Silkin moved out to San Francisco and used a prototype of their college VR game Zombies in the Holodeck to introduce investors to VR and raise funds for Survios and development of Raw Data.

Stories from that chapter of Survios’ oral history can be found in the full Glixel interview, along with looks at how the VR shooter Raw Data evolved from that early Zombies in the Holodeck demo. 

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