Michael Antonov’s careful, deliberate answers to questions make one wonder about his approach to writing code—which he started learning during his sophomore and junior year of high school. He experimented with the TI-81 and 85, graphing calculators on which many students of his generation learned how to graph functions, draw tangents, and program small projects. After spending time learning the native TI-Basic programming language, he eventually moved to developing software on computers. This first foray into coding led him to create video games, and eventually to teach himself how to program in C and Assembly before graduating high school.
He projects a natural, quiet curiosity, and this makes sense as he talks about the reasons he became interested in Computer Science in the first place. When asked what drew him to this field, he says, “It was the creative aspect of it. I could have this machine do something fun. I made my own games; I made versions of Tetris and Space Invaders.” Video games--which have helped to define Antonov's career--have evolved well beyond 8-bit color graphics and synthesized music into fully realized stories with characters and full orchestral soundtracks. The work that he did at Scaleform and Gaikai was certainly a part of the evolution of the video game industry.
He is charmingly self aware of his own personal history of game development; Antonov still has files of programs he wrote when he was eighteen. These files--and the programs contained in them--mark the time just before he met Andrew Reisse, his future roommate and longtime collaborator, and Brendan Iribe, another dear friend, roommate, and collaborator. The three men worked together at three companies before collaborating together at Oculus. This exciting and productive time was cruelly halted with Andrew’s untimely passing in June 2013, leaving Michael and Brendan to continue their work without their brilliant friend. For Antov, VR (Virtual Reality) seems to be a culmination of the time he spent harnessing his creativity by working with his close friends, learning how to program games, and becoming interested in computer vision and graphics. This love of vision and graphics serves him in his capacity as the Chief Software Architect (for the PC group) for Oculus though he modestly says, “it’s hard to be the chief of anything at Oculus at this point.”
Antonov is a developer’s developer. He explains that one of the things he enjoys is ensuring that well-made APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) exist to make it easier for software developers to interact with the Oculus Rift. When talking about developing materials to help other programmers, he emphasizes his that his main role is to ensure further, fluid development of exciting applications of the software he has worked painstakingly to develop. For Antonov, Virtual Reality is a terrifically and rapidly expanding field with a great deal of room for exciting collaborations. Working at Oculus allows him to see and participate in the growth and development of the company and the technologies associated with virtual reality first hand. He explains that this immersive community and field gives him immense freedom to create and succeed.
“Building a company and growing with it; this is exciting. Immersing yourself in work and seeing things in 3D that are right in front of you [makes] you feel as though you’re in a different world,” he says.
He claims not to know what advice to give to aspiring programmers, but he does have his own recipe for success. In order to develop the necessary skills to be a talented software developer, Antonov encourages students to embark on their own independent projects. “Just go for it,” he says. "Work on projects and do the best you can. As you learn, you’ll have to start with smaller projects, but then you’ll build bigger projects—alone or with other people—and you’ll feel the power to create.”
Antonov generously attributes Maryland for helping to form many parts of who he has become, but he is very candid about the fact that the university is a place that might not be for everyone. “Maryland is a great school for technology and great fun. But it depends on what you’re looking for,” he says before mentioning the things that he was encouraged to try at UMD. “Ballroom dancing,” he pauses, “I never would have tried that if I hadn’t come here.”
He says that while a lot of his formative learning about Computer Science took place away from the classroom, he mentioned a fond memory of being in a Computer Vision course with Dr. Cornelia Fermuller of UMIACS. He recalls that it was a particularly challenging course but ultimately had a great impact on his career. To aspiring developers, he gives this advice: “Make a fun, cool game and learn a lot about creating. Remember that the department has outreach programs to give people opportunities. Go to hackathons and create connections. Spend time outside of lectures, because that is another way to learn.”
Michael is a fantastic example of how a computer science student can combine university experience with time outside of lectures to acquire skills which result in transformative software development and technology. He also shows UMD students that classes and outside interests can culminate in fearless innovation and a lifetime of learning.