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From Gaming to Rocket Science: A Profile on John Carmack

john carmack history

Computer-games design pioneer, leader in the online gaming revolution, commercial spacecraft enthusiast and now CTO of Oculus VR. Those are just some of the words we would use to describe John Carmack. But, compared to other industry leaders that have reached what you can call “stardom”, Carmack has remained a bit in the shadows.

If you are a games or tech aficionado, you might be slightly confused at how others might be unaware of the tech genius in our midst. So, if you are not part of the aforementioned category, who exactly is John Carmack?

Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, Carmack knew early on that programming was his calling. After attending computer-science classes for a few semesters at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he dropped out to pursue contract programming jobs.

“It was frustrating because I clearly knew what I wanted to be doing but it wasn’t available to me at the time. It was always: if you want to do computers you need to go to MIT then you go work at a corporation as an engineer and follow “the path.” But I dropped out of college and started my own company.”

While working for a software publishing company in Louisiana called Softdisk, he met John Romero, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack¹. The four would, later on, found iD Software in 1991, following the success of Commander Keen1: Marooned on Mars. And that’s when things began to get interesting!

iD Software - The Reveal Of A Genius

If you’ve played any video games, especially “first-person shooters”, and were amazed by the graphics, well… surprise! 

In 1992, iD Software released Wolfenstein 3D. Which, despite being termed 2.5D or pseudo 3D, launched iD’s reign as the premier graphics engine makers. Who was the mastermind behind this? John Carmack, of course!

For the first time, players were able to navigate a three-dimensional environment of rooms and hallways from a first-person perspective. This would begin an era of growing realism in game-design as graphics engines continued to improve.

One thing was clear, people were captivated by his games and wanted more. Luckily, kids and teenagers of the ‘90s didn’t have to wait long for the next smash hit from John Carmack. In 1993, Doom, arguably one of the most popular video games of all time, was released. Now, whilst that is arguable (depending on who you ask), the fact is that the release of Doom marked a turning point in the history of computer games.

doom id software john carmack

How so? Well, it wasn’t just the awesome graphics. The way his games (Doom and Quake for example) were released paved the way for modern-day shareware strategies. In short, users would buy or download the games either for free or a small fee and have access only to the first level of the game. If they then wanted to continue playing, they had to purchase the rest of the game by credit card.

This way, users were able to get a taste of the game without having to pay. And that is just a signature move for Carmack. He is known for his dedication to bringing only the best end product to the user and even releasing portions of the source code to the public, giving players the opportunity to make the game theirs.

You might think that one would be happy with being the “Godfather of Gaming”, but Carmack was shooting for the moon. Literally.

Armadillo Airspace - From Doom To The Moon

armadillo aerospace john carmackJohn Carmack might be best known for his breakthroughs in the gaming industry, but his contributions to the aerospace industry should not go unnoticed.

One of Carmack’s hobbies since childhood was rocketry and he followed that passion by founding Armadillo Airspace in 2000. His goal with Armadillo was to build a crewed suborbital spacecraft capable of space tourism.

The company made steady progress towards its goals and in October 2008, Armadillo Aerospace won NASA’s Level 1 Lunar Lander Challenge along with $350,000 to help fund their projects. A year later, they also managed to win Level 2 of the same competition along with $500,000.

john carmack armadillo aerospace nasa

Things were looking bright for Armadillo Aerospace. However, following stepbacks in production and the failed launch of their only STIG rocket, Carmack decided to shelve Armadillo Aerospace for the time being. The company went into hibernation in 2013.

Not all is lost though. Carmack has come out and said that he would be more than happy to go back to his childhood hobby of aerospace engineering, being a big supporter of Elon Musk’s SpaceX.

And the feeling is reciprocated. Musk addressed him a series of tweets showing SpaceX’s autonomous seafaring drone landing ship, which shows the rocket’s RUD (rapid unscheduled disassembly) and a fantastic fireball. 

Musk ended his flood of tweets saying his motivation in doing this is to get Carmack back into aerospace tech. So, hope might not be lost yet. And we completely agree. For us at Tech Will Save Us, failure is not a bad thing, but a step closer to finding the solution.

Oculus VR - Reaching For The Future

Immersion has been the holy grail of entertainment since the dawn of humanity. To date, that has been an “over there” experience, leaving a physical gap that reminds our sense that we’re not truly immersed, we’re not truly part of the story. All that’s about to change with the rise of Virtual Reality (VR).

The applications for Virtual Reality don’t apply just to gaming and movies. Along the way, we’ve discovered techniques to make Virtual Reality feasible for broad commercial applications. And that’s just the beginning.

Despite companies like Google and Sony jumping into the fold, the uncontested leader in the industry is the Facebook-owned Oculus VR. And who better to be the technology leader other than the godfather of gaming himself?

oculus vr john carmack

Carmack accepted the job as CTO at Oculus in 2013, where he now does what he does best: quietly invent, innovate, and solve. And he does so with his classic “everything is possible if you try enough times” attitude.

“I am such an optimist about everything that we have today and where we are going. I am happy to be part of the technological wave pushing things.”

It’s definitely this optimistic view of the world that has helped him achieve so much. He wants to make the world a better, more connected place and he believes Virtual Reality is one of the answers. In his view, Virtual Reality means that the “99% can experience the lives of the 1%”.

And of course, in typical Carmackian style, his goal is to get VR headgear to match the “ubiquity and expense of protective cell phone cases.” Isn’t that exciting? A world where everyone can join together and experience everything they’ve ever dreamed of? We think so!

Under Carmack, Oculus has made great progress with their VR gears. Oculus owners can not only play games but “attend” sports events, concerts, stand-up comedy shows and many more with the help of Oculus Venues. The future is here and it’s great!

But the question that is on everyone’s minds is this: Is VR like Ready Player One actually possible? We certainly hope so. Here’s what John Carmack had to say about it in his most recent interview with Joe Rogan

So, there it goes, that is John Carmack in a nutshell. Tech genius, pioneer of the largest entertainment industry in the history of mankind, aerospace enthusiast and an optimist to the core. He could teach us all a lot, but if there is one thing to take from John Carmack’s journey through life, it’s this:

Always follow your passions and never stop trying. After all, we’ve all got it in us to make the world a better place.

Here at Tech Will Save Us, we always try to do the most we can to make the world a better place. Our latest endeavor towards that is the Arcade Coder: a completely customizable board game that teaches kids the basics of coding and game design. If it sounds like something you or your kid would love to play with you can support the Arcade Coder on Kickstarter here.