Record $31M Gift to Jump-Start Computer Science Building
Oculus VR CEO’s Vision: UMD in Forefront of Virtual Reality
By Lauren Brown
Brendan Iribe aims to transform entertainment, communication, education and more with the most hotly anticipated tech advance since the smartphone: a pair of goggles and operating system offering a totally immersive 3-D experience in virtual reality.
The Maryland alumnus’ boldness extends to the university, where he envisions a building that will become a model for the study of computer science, allowing students and faculty to explore the potential of virtual reality, as well as robotics, computer vision, computer-human interaction and immersive science.
Iribe (right), co-founder and CEO of Oculus VR, has pledged $30 million to Maryland to help fund construction of the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Innovation. With an additional $1 million supporting scholarships in computer science, his is the largest gift in university history. His longtime business partner, Oculus co-founder and Chief Software Architect Michael Antonov ’03 (left), is pledging $4 million to support construction of the building and scholarships, and Iribe’s mother, Elizabeth Iribe, is contributing $3 million for new professorships in the Department of Computer Science.
“‘Giving while living’ is what many people are saying now,” says Iribe, whose company was acquired by Facebook in July for approximately $2 billion. “Giving back at this time allows us to participate in the school right now instead of waiting until we’re retired or much older. We’re going to be able to go back and not just talk there, but be able to help spread a lot of this technology and innovation that we’re creating at Oculus.”
The building, expected to open in 2017, will be prominently located at the corner of Campus Drive and Route 1 and designed to encourage collaboration, with open work spaces, community areas and “makerspaces” where students and faculty can experiment and create.
“Brendan’s remarkable vision will catapult our computer science department to an even greater level of national distinction,” says university President Wallace D. Loh. “It will spark student creativity, galvanize collaborative innovation and entrepreneurship across campus, and stimulate tech-based economic development in the state.”
Iribe and Antonov met as freshmen in Fall 1997 when they lived in Denton Hall. With Iribe as the business visionary and Antonov and Andrew Reisse ’01 as coding whizzes, they founded their first company, SonicFusion, in 1999 with lofty ambitions: to create a better windowing system than Windows.
“We were in a little bit over our heads,” Iribe later joked.
After freshman year, Iribe withdrew from Maryland to continue growing the newly renamed Scaleform; Antonov briefly did the same, then returned and juggled classes and coding with Reisse. After six long years of being broke, they finally licensed their technology and started developing a new Flash player for 3-D applications.
Their software was used in hundreds of video games by Activision, Disney and more, and in 2011, Greenbelt-based Scaleform was acquired by Autodesk for $36 million. The trio then moved to a cloud gaming company called Gaikai in California, and figured out how to stream games onto smart TVs. The next year, Sony bought that company, this time for $380 million.
“We were starting to get the hang of it,” Iribe says drily.
In 2012, Iribe met Palmer Luckey, who as a home-schooled teen had cobbled together a virtual reality (VR) headset called the Oculus Rift, predicting it would someday offer true immersion—the holy grail of gaming. John Carmack, the godfather of 3-D gaming who created Doom and Quake, took a duct-taped prototype of the Rift to a top video game conference, where he declared it “probably the best VR demo the world has ever seen.”
Iribe and his team came on board to formally create a company and launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $250,000 to keep improving the Rift. It blew past that goal in hours and ultimately brought in more than $2.4 million. The first developer kits shipped out, and the ideas multiplied for how it could be used beyond gaming: to help children learn about the solar system or human body, to take homebound (or cash-poor) users on virtual vacations, to put sports fans in the middle of a game.
The company’s evolving headset was winning awards and positive press, when Reisse was killed in a hit-and-run crash near his Santa Ana, Calif., home in May 2013. Antonov, Iribe and their co-workers, along with Reisse’s parents, Robert ’76 and Dana ’73, quickly funded a new scholarship for Terp computer science students in his name.
“We wanted Andrew to be remembered and to support the kind of independence, creativity in computer science and love of nature, which he had,” Antonov says.
The first scholarship recipient invited Antonov and Iribe back to Maryland for Bitcamp, an April event that drew 700 students nationwide to hack together websites, apps and computer hardware projects. It was a stunner when, 10 days before the pair arrived, the Oculus-Facebook deal was announced.
Department Chair Samir Khuller gave them a tour of the computer science classrooms and labs carved out of the A.V. Williams Building, built in 1987 as office space. Iribe recalls, “My first thought was, this is pretty depressing. How can people get inspired to create the future in a space like this?”
Someone mentioned that computer science needs a new home. “I said, ‘We can fix that. How much is a building?’ The more we thought and talked about it, the more excited we became about the opportunity to transform University of Maryland with a new computer science building that inspires students the same way our offices and engineering labs inspire and attract the best and brightest in the industry.”
His offer was a godsend for the department, where undergraduate enrollment had doubled in the past five years, to 1,700, and is expected to double again in the next decade. As a result, students are working in a maze of cubicles in four buildings spread across campus. It’s hurting Maryland’s recruitment of faculty and graduate students, says Professor Emeritus Bill Pugh, who is spearheading the Iribe Center’s fundraising effort, as well as kicking in $500,000 of his own money.
He envisions a vibrant place that spurs cutting-edge research in the department and the university’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies and offers courses, events and creative projects that attract students from practically every major.
“We need a building where formal and informal learning co-exist so our students can imagine and invent products that will change our world,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
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