Palmer Luckey: The Oculus Rift Maverick Bringing VR Back From the Dead

By James O Malley on at

There have been a number of attempts to make virtual reality an… umm, reality - but over the years all have been, essentially, crap. VR-style games had been tried for years by videogame companies, to little success. Perhaps most famously, Nintendo released its disastrous Virtual Boy, and excited approximately no one.

In recent years though, VR has had something of a renaissance - and at long last it really does seem as though we’re on the verge of the revolution. We can attribute this more or less to one person: Palmer Luckey, who invented the Oculus Rift.

Luckey was a precocious child. I say “was”, though perhaps I should say “is” - he’s still only 22 (I know, sickening right?) and has already sold his company to Facebook for $2bn, in what was widely viewed as an unusual acquisition for the company. Mark Zuckerberg, obviously won over by the potential of the virtual reality headset, declared it “one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

Luckey grew up in Long Beach, California, and was homeschooled before going to California State University to study journalism. In his teenage years he developed a fascination with VR technology - apparently amassing quite the collection of headsets. Like other entrepreneurs, he started making money early - apparently making over $36,000 by fixing broken iPhones. Brilliantly, it was apparently seeing The Matrix which planted the seed of the idea that would become the Oculus Rift.

It was to home-schooling that Luckey attributes his success. The Washington Post quotes him as saying:

“I’ve had the blessing of growing up with supportive parents, who didn’t actually financially support my hobbies. I had to do odd jobs and stuff to make all the money myself, but they were at least very supportive of me, being flexible with my time. They home-schooled me in a way that let me prioritise my schoolwork for certain days and my other stuff for other days. And I started taking community college courses when I was 14. That gave me a lot of freedom to choose the classes on the days I wanted. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Rift never would’ve happened had I not been home-schooled.”

The College Drop-Out Success Story

Aged 20, he dropped out of California State, as his invention started to take off. Luckey was taking a risk: Rather than stay on the traditional college career path, he was gambling that his invention would be his ticket to success.

The Oculus Rift started life started life in Luckey’s parents garage - where he developed a number of prototypes that aimed to solve a number of problems with existing VR headsets. For example - the restricted field of vision and poor latency (when you move your head, whether the images can move fast enough to keep up).

When he launched on Kickstarter, he not only overwhelmingly smashed his target, raising over nine times as much as he wanted with a $2.4m haul, but he caught the attention of legendary Doom developer John Carmack, whose adaption of Doom 3 to work with the Oculus propelled it to superstardom.

In 2012, he was interviewed by Popular Mechanics, and explained that if he could make any games for the Oculus he’d make “Chrono Break, Fallout 3, Pokemon VR, Bioshock Infinite, Half Life.”

The Oculus Rift is now on to its second publicly available prototype unit (it is still officially aimed at developers rather than consumers). The first iteration largely used off the shelf parts, such as the same displays used in Samsung phones - but the second upgraded to innards custom built for VR, and included much higher resolution screens. The final consumer version will finally be available to ordinary gamers during the first quarter of next year.

Open to Ideas

Perhaps one of the most endearing aspects of Luckey’s success has been his surprising willingness to engage with the wider community. Unlike companies like Apple, which treats each new iPhone like a state secret, even today after the Facebook acquisition Luckey still hangs out on Oculus developer forums, chatting with users about progress on the headset. In the early days, Luckey posted regular updates on his prototyping in the garage on forums.

Arguably this maverick approach to openness has led to one of the Rift’s strengths - there’s not only a passionate community of Rift supporters, but there are Rift modders who share tips on how to optimise and convert existing games to work on Luckey’s hardware. Rather than wait for game developers to come to his hardware, he has helped empower gamers to bring games to his platform.

For example, when Grand Theft Auto 5 was finally released on PC in April, literally the next day the first videos of the game unofficially modded to work in VR had started to appear on YouTube. The game provided a ready-made, immersive world that was perhaps the closest we’ve got yet to creating The Matrix that inspired Luckey. So transformative was the Oculus experience that the game’s murder and violence mechanics, when viewed through the eyes of a VR player, freaked out some gamers.

The success of the Rift has led to a veritable arms race amongst the world’s biggest tech companies. It pays tribute to Luckey’s obsession with a technology that had been repeatedly discredited that at the time of writing, having a VR system in development is a badge of honour. Samsung has focused on its mobile-powered Gear VR, Google has its lo-fi cereal-box style “Google Cardboard”, HTC has teamed up with Valve to build the HTC Re Vive, Sony has its mysterious “Morpheus” project, and Microsoft has HoloLens.

So perhaps it shouldn’t be that surprising that Oculus was snapped up by Facebook? Luckey now works out of Facebook’s headquarters, and once told The Telegraph, who were surprised by the lack of PR minders during an interview that “Ever since I was 15 I’ve tried to act and talk as if I was a public figure because I was sure that I would be one day and wanted to be prepared.”

Whilst it isn’t clear exactly how VR will manifest itself over the next few years, and how far it can grow. Will VR go mainstream? Or will it be the preserve of hardcore gamers and specialist users? Either way, what seems clear is that this time around, VR is here to stay, and Luckey’s tenacious pursuit of VR perfection makes the Oculus Rift the best positioned to come out on top.

In partnership with Microsoft, powered by the HP Spectre x360

Image Credits: Wikipedia