We may earn a commission when you buy through links in our articles. Learn more.

The strange case of the Valve economist and the Virtual Reality contact lenses


Valve’s resident economist Yanis Varoufakis has told a very strange story. It involves an underground lab, virtual reality technology which is far beyond anything currently on the market, and aliens. And we can’t tell if he’s making it all up or not.

Writing in Greek paper Lifo, a paper not known for publishing fiction, Varoufakis writes of visiting an underground lab, the location of which he is forbidden from revealing, where he was able to wear a pair of virtual reality contact lenses. Read that again. Virtual reality contact lenses. Not a VR headset like the Oculus Rift.

We’ve got a translation of the original article and I’ve copied in some extracts below.

Yanis begins by explaining the setup. “The technician made me sit in a chair that reminded me uncomfortably of a dentist’s chair, and asked me if I had ever worn contact lenses; I hadn’t. “It’s OK,” she said, “it’ll just take a minute or two for your eyes to adjust.” Indeed, after a few eye drops, my eyes adjusted to the transparent lenses and I almost forgot they were there.”

Once Varoufakis had the lenses in he says that he was handed a small box with a silver dial. Turning this dial increased the visibility of the image that was to be projected onto the lenses.

“The technician motioned and I started turning the dial. Suddenly, I saw him! He was eight feet tall, and stood out behind the technician. The first thing I noticed was his expressive red eyes and the scales he was covered in. Faint steam emanated from his nostrils. With slow, steady steps, he moved to the right, revealing all of himself from behind the technician, who was obviously having fun with my expression. As prepared as I was, the sight of the alien took my breath away. Even though I knew it was just a projection from the contact lenses onto my optical nerve, logic was having trouble defeating my instincts, which screamed at me to run toward the nearest exit.”

From Varoufakis’ description, it sounds as if the projection is particularly vivid. That’s something other augmented reality technology has struggled with, largely because once something unreal is placed over your vision of the real world the difference in quality causes it to stand out. Varoufakis doesn’t give any suggestion that what he saw was anything but seamless.

“Despite the fact I could see the technician moving him around with small adjustments to her console, his presence was absolutely real to me. His every step not only seemed, but sounded real (obviously, through stereoscopic speakers that gave the necessary depth to the sounds he made), his breath as well, even the sounds he made as he dragged his clawed hand against the wall, making my hair stand on end.”

Apparently, “the technician told [him] it’s going to take years before they get the necessary FDA approvals, in order to get the technology to market. The reason is that no one knows what impact such realistic presences might have to a person’s psyche, especially if they’re prone to schizophrenia.”

Now, my immediate reaction to all this is to guffaw. “Yeah, right.” Why would Varoufakis be present for this private demonstration and why would the NDA permit him to talk about this technology in general terms but not name the company, the device, or the place it is being developed? And that reasoning about the FDA just doesn’t ring true.

However, why would he write this piece at all if it were fiction? And why would Lifo publish it? Is it even possible to have VR technology working within a contact lens? The Oculus Rift is one of the closest examples to go with and there’s plenty of work to be done to bring the size of that down.

Valve have written extensively on the limitations and requirements for VR and Augmented Reality in the past. Though, even Valve’s own specialist on the technology, Michael Abrash, doesn’t predict the sort of AR technology Varoufakis is describing as being possible for years to come. Abrash wrote a piece on the future of AR back in October last year where he doesn’t see the AR glasses of 2015 being able to “display virtual objects that appear to be part of the real world”. Instead, those glasses would be working with a Terminator-like HUDspace.

Maybe what Varoufakis is doing is painting a picture of the future for AR, a not too distant picture. But, if he isn’t and there is a company out there with this technology usable in their basement, well… shiiiiiiiitt. Or maybe we’ve just stumbled across the first stage of an elaborate ARG. Shit.

What do you think?

Thanks to Michael Tegos for the translation and the tip.