A taste of Israeli tech in Facebook’s $2 billion buy

Dov Katz’s journey to senior engineer developing the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset began at Tel Aviv University

Attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File)
Attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual-reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES), in Las Vegas, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Jae C. Hong, File)

One of the top technology engineers in Oculus, the virtual reality headset maker that was recently bought out by Facebook, is a graduate of Tel Aviv University — an institution that prepared him very well for the work he is doing now.

“I studied at TAU as an undergraduate and got a degree in computer science and electrical engineering,” Israeli-born Dov Katz told The Times of Israel in an exclusive interview. “Israel’s educational system is excellent, and what I learned in university gave me an excellent background for the work I am doing now on virtual reality (VR) systems.”

As a Senior Computer Vision Engineer for Oculus, Katz is an integral part of the team that developed the Oculus Rift headset, a 3D virtual reality device that, when worn, puts users “in” a game — providing an approximately 100° field of view and stretching the virtual world beyond peripheral vision to provide an immersive experience. The Rift is the first harbinger of a major revolution that is coming to computing in all forms, with gaming — the device’s original purpose — just the first of many different kinds of applications that will eventually come to depend on VR.

“Some people try to compare the Rift’s VR experience to a 3D movie,” said Katz. “While there are elements of 3D involved, the effect and experience are far different, because in the movies, the effect is external — meaning that you are just watching it — while with VR you are totally immersed in what is going on.”

How the Rift does its magic is a secret that Katz cannot reveal, but it has a lot to do with 3D cameras and vision engineering, two specialties of his. “There are many companies developing VR technology, and Israel is a world center of this research, but I can tell you that Oculus developed its technology without outside help,” he said.

The Rift is currently available only for developers, mostly game publishers who are developing versions of their applications to work with the device. “Our original goal was to create a device for gamers, but now people are talking about a lot of other uses for the device,” said Katz. “It could be used in medicine, to allow doctors to perform virtual operations before cutting into a patient, or to teach drivers how to properly parallel park a car without having to get into the car.

Dov Katz (Photo credit: Courtesy)
Dov Katz (Photo credit: Courtesy)

“It could even be used for communications,” said Katz. “Instead of just talking on the phone or seeing an image on a screen, you could actually ‘be’ in the same virtual room as your interlocutor, with your avatars sitting together and talking.” Where the technology will go, and how far it will be taken, remains to be seen. “It depends on what developers come up with, but the technology to do a lot of these things already exists,” he added.

To buy Oculus, Facebook shelled out some $2 billion — a princely sum for a company that just a year and a half ago was raising money by crowdsourcing on Kickstarter. It’s not yet known what Facebook’s plans are for Oculus, but according to Israeli tech expert Nir Kouris, it’s unlikely Facebook would have spent that kind of money on a device that could be used only for gaming.

“Recently Facebook held a major wearable technology hackathon in California, in which developers came up with all sorts of devices that utilize Facebook apps for health, messaging, and other purposes,” said Kouris. “Mark Zuckerberg has said that he sees wearable technology as an important industry in the coming years.” Of course, said Kouris, Oculus VR technology will be deployed in games — but it will also be deployed in devices that will allow the company to expand its reach.

After graduating TAU, Katz went on to do his graduate (University of Massachusetts Amherst) and post-graduate (Carnegie Mellon University) work in the US. “I left because it sounded like an interesting and exciting thing to do,” Katz said. “I know that people in Israel are very concerned with ‘brain drain,’ and how the lack of opportunities is driving promising students out of the country, but I didn’t find that to be the case.” Had he stayed in Israel, Katz said, he is sure he would have gotten into a challenging program that would have utilized his talents fully. “It’s been a very enjoyable adventure, but home is home, and I plan to return at some point.”

And as a senior member of the Oculus team, Katz would presumably get a fair amount of the $2 billion the company is getting from Facebook — perhaps enough to come back to Israel and open his own start-up? “Interestingly, a lot of people have been asking us about that since the sale was announced,” he said. “It’s a very tempting idea, but I think we still have a lot to do in VR, and in Oculus specifically. With the acquisition, we will be able to move much more quickly, and our work will have an impact on a lot more people. All of us on the team got into this because we believe in it, and not necessarily for the money — and for most of us, that hasn’t changed.”

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