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How Palmer Luckey Created Oculus Rift

The young visionary dreamed up a homemade headset that may transform everything from gaming to medical treatment to engineering—and beyond

(Photo-illustration by Dan Saelinger)
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On the afternoon of July 4, 2012, Brendan Iribe, Nate Mitchell and Michael Antonov sat in a room at the Long Beach Hilton, nervously waiting for Palmer Luckey. Luckey was late—very late, in fact—but that wasn’t the only thing making them edgy. Just days before, the three video game industry veterans had agreed to found a company with Luckey to develop a device he called the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset that had been lauded as revolutionary by nearly everyone who had tested it. Because this new venture conflicted with a deal they’d made with another tech company, partnering with Luckey meant potentially forfeiting millions of dollars. And therein lay the source of their anxiety: Not only were they walking away from a lot of money, the three were gambling on a product they had never actually tried themselves. “Palmer described the Rift in such a compelling way that we wanted to do it without even seeing it,” Iribe explained. “We thought, Why not?”

When Luckey finally bounded into the room, clad in T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, Iribe’s unease about the risk they’d taken escalated. Their grinning 19-year-old business partner wasn’t holding a slick-looking prototype; he was lugging in a tray tangled over with a mess of cables.

That’s Oculus? Iribe thought.

From underneath this thicket, Luckey dug out a crudely fashioned electronics box, apparently the headset: a tape-covered black brick with wires poking out from every angle. As Luckey cheerfully struggled to get this jumble into working order, Iribe was all but holding his breath.

Finally, Luckey handed the headset to Antonov, who pressed it to his eyes and, slowly, began to bob his head around, exploring a three-dimensional digital space. “Wow ...” he managed. After his turn, Mitchell offered the same monosyllabic response. “I was the last to try it,” recalled Iribe, who is now the CEO of Oculus VR, the company they founded. “Sure enough, it really worked. And we all looked at each other like, Oh, my God.”

In his parents' garage, he dreamed up Oculus Rift, a homemade headset that's creating a new reality

They would not be the last investors moved to rapture by Luckey’s invention. This past March, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg stopped by the Oculus offices for a demonstration and, according to Fortune magazine, immediately pronounced the Rift “one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.” Within weeks, Facebook bought the company for $2 billion. In the Rift, Zuckerberg saw something far grander than a mere entertainment device. “Imagine enjoying a court-side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home,” he wrote at the time. Even better, for Facebook’s purposes, virtual reality could allow users to share entire immersive experiences, rather than just photos.

To Jeremy Bailenson, the director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab and the co-author of the book Infinite Reality, the widespread use of virtual reality has the potential not just to change our leisure habits but to alter how we think and live. “An example I use is Yosemite, which millions of people drive through each year,” Bailenson told me. “With virtual reality, we can now produce an experience that rivals that drive, which means we could potentially spare a lot of wear and tear on the environment, and also make it available to people who couldn’t afford to go otherwise.” Bailenson’s research shows that immersion in a digital world can make people more environmentally conscious—for instance, by showing them firsthand the devastation of a simulated trash-strewn ocean—and even, perhaps, more compassionate. “If you can virtually look in a mirror and see yourself as a senior citizen, or as belonging to a different race, or as handicapped, that helps you form empathy with others in different walks of life,” he said.

And if dreams like these come to fruition sooner rather than later, most of the credit will go to Luckey. When I went to meet him this past summer at Oculus’s new offices, in a sleek high-rise in Irvine, California, evidence of the company’s breakneck growth was everywhere. Desks piled with computer equipment and Rift prototypes lay scattered seemingly at random through vast, monochromatic open-plan areas. Staffers unpacked fresh blue Facebook T-shirts and posted maps of the regional offices of their giant parent company. Hammering and drilling noises punctuated seemingly every conversation.

The one notable thing that was missing was Luckey himself, who, naturally, was late. But when he finally showed, in his standard uniform of jeans, striped T-shirt, and sandals, there was no mistaking it. “I am Palmer!” he proclaimed, and his energy instantly infused the office. At 22, he still seems like an overgrown teenager, with an unruly mop of brown hair, a fondness for emphatically pronouncing things “super cool,” and a habit of staying in constant motion even when sitting still. (Despite being a millionaire many times over, he’s clung to the much-loved car from his teenage days, a 2001 Honda Insight, as well.) Where Zuckerberg and other titans of tech are often chilly and aloof, Luckey is all warmth and geek charm—a smiling, chatty pitchman who also happens to be a world-class engineer.

And all of this energy, I soon learned, was despite his being ill; moments earlier, he told me, he had thrown up inside a friend’s brand-new Tesla. When I expressed surprise at his exuberance, he shrugged. “I have a really high pain-slash-sickness tolerance,” he said. Chris Dycus, an Oculus hardware engineer, described Luckey’s zeal as a nearly indestructible force. “Palmer’s enthusiastic about everything,” he said. “Like, go ask him why McDonald’s isn’t actually that bad for you, and you’ll get talked to for an hour.”

But Luckey is first and foremost an evangelist for virtual reality. For decades, people have dreamed of a technology that would let them experience an alternate reality—artificial, crafted, entirely new. Companies poured billions of dollars into research in the ’80s and ’90s but computing technology simply wasn’t advanced enough yet; by the time Luckey started playing around with virtual reality, most had given it up for dead. There were specialty headsets available on the market, but they were a huge letdown. “A lot of them were low resolution,” Luckey told me, ticking off their deficiencies. “They were extremely heavy—my best one weighed six pounds. All of them had a low field of view.” Even worse, new models could easily cost more than a new Porsche.

In just a few years of tinkering, the teenage Luckey turned all of that on its head, using existing parts to engineer something far better and lighter than any other headset out there, all for under $300—thereby creating the first virtual reality device that could be a viable mainstream product. And he did it not in a lab but in his parents’ garage.

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Improvements to Oculus Rift continue—the latest prototype integrates audio. (Oculus VR)
Luckey is both a first-rate engineer and virtual reality’s foremost evangelist, full of warmth and geek charm. (Dan Saelinger)

If there is a case to be made that unconventional schooling, without busywork or fixed schedules, helps unleash creativity, Luckey might well be Exhibit A for the prosecution. His mother, Julie, home-schooled all four of her children during a period of each of their childhoods (Luckey’s father, Donald, is a car salesman), but Palmer was the only one of the kids who never went back; he liked the flexibility too much. In his ample free time, he devoted most of his considerable energy to teaching himself how to build electronics from scratch.

No one else in Luckey’s family was especially interested in technology, but his parents were happy to give over half of the garage at their Long Beach, California, home to his experiments. There, Luckey quickly progressed from making small electronics to “high-voltage stuff” like lasers and electromagnetic coilguns. Inevitably, there were mishaps. While working on a live Tesla coil, Luckey once accidentally touched a grounded metal bed frame, and blew himself across the garage; another time, while cleaning an infrared laser, he burned a gray spot into his vision.

When Luckey was 15, he started “modding” video game equipment: taking consoles like the Nintendo GameCube, disassembling them, and modifying them with newer parts, to transform them into compact, efficient and hand-crafted devices. “Modding was more interesting than just building things entirely using new technologies,” Luckey told me. “It was this very special type of engineering that required deeply understanding why people had made the decisions they made in designing the hardware.”

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