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Palmer Luckey's mentor, VR pioneer moves to Microsoft

Mark Bolas founded influential MxR Lab and Studio

Mark Bolas

Microsoft just nabbed one of the most influential people in virtual reality.

Mark Bolas, virtual reality researcher and mentor for folks like the creator of the Oculus Rift and the team behind VR shooter Raw Data, recently left his job as a researcher and professor at the University of Southern California for a job at Microsoft, Polygon has learned.

A university spokesperson confirmed today his departure, telling Polygon only that he is now working at Microsoft. We’ve reached out to Bolas and Microsoft for comment and will update this story when they respond.

Bolas directed the Mixed Reality Lab and Studio, which he founded in 2009, as part of USC’s Institute for Creative Technologies. The new director of the lab is Todd Richmond, an expert on technology in society and the application of new media to traditional learning and teaching environments. Richmond will remain on as the lab’s director of advanced prototype development as well.

"Mark is on a sort of 'extended sabbatical' to get back into the tempo of private sector research and development," Richmond told Polygon today. "He's an incredibly creative and energetic guy, and the stimulations and associations of academia, government and commercial are all different and fuel his passion in different ways.

"I've worked closely with Mark over the past five years on a variety of mixed reality projects, and one of the reasons he was comfortable in making the leap was that we had great complementarity and understood each other's vision. My goal is to continue to provide an environment where our researchers can thrive, and move into rapidly evolving areas around AR/VR/MxR (particularly content and context), and how it will change the world."

It was at the MxR Lab where people like Oculus Rift creator Palmer Luckey, VR journalism pioneer Nonny de la Peña and the founders of game developer and Raw Data creator Survios all got their VR start.

And it was under Bolas’ direction that countless others were given the space and instruction to discover their own takes on augmented, virtual and mixed realities.

Bolas’ early work in virtual reality started in the late ‘80s as he developed his master’s thesis under the guidance of VR innovator Scott Fisher at NASA. His efforts to map the breadth of virtual reality led to a growing interest in exploring perception, agency and intelligence, according to his USC bio. While running the MxR Lab, Bolas was also an associate professor of interactive media in the Interactive Media Division of the university’s School of Cinematic Arts. He also remains active in Fakespace Labs, which he co-founded to build instrumentation for virtual reality research labs.

In describing the Mixed Reality Lab and Studio, Bolas wrote that he founded it as a "sandbox in which I could play with USC’s world leading storytellers, interactive media artists, engineers, computer scientists, and research psychologists."

The 14,000-square-foot lab, according to his post, is home to about 25 students, staff, interns and researchers who work on projects funded by more than $2.5 million in grants and donations.

Richmond, who has worked with Bolas for years at the center, said the move happened over the summer and that it wasn't a surprise.

"I knew it was coming," he said. "Mark and I had talked a lot about it."

One of the reasons he was ready to shift over to a different environment for work, Richmond said, was because he felt comfortable that he was leaving the lab and studio in good hands.

While Richmond says he doesn't plan to introduce any sort of drastic changes at the center, he acknowledges that Bolas brought some very specific skills and a certain mindset to his job as director.

"To me Mark's three main qualities are an insatiable curiosity, that he is a tireless tinkerer and just this melding of the tangible and the philosophical," Richmond said. "He's the guy who would go off and walk around and sit and think in the parking lot and then go into the machine shop and start cutting and hammering stuff and literally start prototyping crazy ideas.

"When you see the head of the lab doing those sort of things it drives and inspires everyone around it. And he didn't do it for appearances; he would be bothered by some problem and then go out and try to fix it."

Richmond added that he often would have talks with others in the lab that would eventually send them down a path toward solving problems.

"He's a bright guy and spits out ideas like machine gun fire," Richmond said. "He's an idea generator. That's part of it, he is present and he is hands-on in doing stuff, and when people see that happening they are inspired."

Richmond said the core team remains at MxR and it's so strong a team it could just remain on autopilot in Bolas' absence, but  that would ultimately be bad for everyone.

"It's a little bit of a daunting task," Richmond said of his new role, "I'm a bright guy, but I'm not Mark. They are big shoes to step into.

"What I have to do is not try to be Mark but be me."

Where Bolas came to VR through engineering, Richmond says his path started in chemistry, breaking down and visualizing big, complicated systems. And that's the sort of approach he hopes to layer onto what the folks at MxR are already doing.

"I'm big on first principles and fundamentals," he said. "Everyone and their brother is a VR developer now. Every day I see a new email about a new groundbreaking game or tech coming out and frankly, they're all crap.

"There are some beautiful ones, but in terms of things that change behavior I'm not seeing it. To do that, first you need to figure out the language of immersion. There's a cinematic language, but that doesn't work, it breaks."

Richmond says he refers to himself as the wet blanket of VR.

"I'm the guy saying, 'A lot of this stuff is not very good,'" he said. "Let's use it to understand what's not working.

"Let's use it to create compelling functionality and meaningful experiences."

That Microsoft might be the sort of place to attract Bolas isn’t surprising, given its growing interest in not just virtual reality, but augmented and mixed realities.

The company is in the midst of rolling out a self-contained mixed reality headset known as the HoloLens. It has among its staff a slew of talented experts in augmented, mixed and virtual reality. Perhaps chief among those experts is VR pioneer Jaron Lanier, who helped popularize the phrase virtual reality and whose work in the field goes back to the ‘80s.

What the long-term future holds for Bolas remains unclear; Richmond says whether he stays at Microsoft or returns to the lab he founded is an "open question." But there seems to be plenty to occupy Bolas at Microsoft right now, Richmond said.

"HoloLens has great possibility," Richmond said. "I think AR is going to be bigger than VR; it's just that AR is a couple of years behind in terms of development.

"The HoloLens is great in many ways and flawed in many ways. Microsoft needs people like Mark to solve those problems."

Update: This story has been written through with additional comment from Richmond.