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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.

***

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.”

Luckey soon became obsessed with PC gaming. How well, he wondered, could he play games? “Not skill level,” he clarified to me, “but how good could the experience be?” By this time, Luckey was making good money fixing broken iPhones, and he spent most of it on high-end gaming equipment in order to make the experience as immersive as possible. At one point, his standard gaming setup consisted of a mind-boggling six-monitor arrangement. “It was so sick,” he recalled.

But it wasn’t enough. Luckey didn’t just want to play on expensive screens; he wanted to jump inside the game itself. He knew the military sometimes trained soldiers using virtual reality headsets, so he set out to buy some—on the cheap, through government auctions. “You’d read that these VR systems originally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you thought, clearly if they’re that expensive, they must be really good,” Luckey said. Instead, they fell miles short of his hopes. The field of view on one headset might be so narrow that he’d feel as if he was looking through a half-opened door. Another might weigh ten pounds, or have preposterously long lag between his head moving and the image reacting onscreen—a feature common to early VR that literally makes users nauseated.

So Luckey decided to do what he’d been doing for years with game consoles: He’d take the technology apart, figure out where it was falling short and modify it with new parts to improve it. Very quickly, he realized that this wasn’t going to be simple. “It turned out that a lot of the approaches the old systems were taking were dead ends,” he said.

The problem was one of fundamental design philosophy. In order to create the illusion of a three-dimensional digital world from a single flat screen, VR manufacturers had typically used complex optical apparatuses that magnified the onscreen image to fill the user’s visual field while also correcting for any distortion. Because these optics had to perform a variety of elaborate tricks to make the magnified image seem clear, they were extremely heavy and costly to produce.

Luckey’s solution to this dilemma was ingeniously simple. Why use bulky, expensive optics, he thought, when he could put in cheap, lightweight lenses and then use software to distort the image, so that it came out clear through them? Plus, he quickly realized that he could combine these lenses with screens from mobile phones, which the smartphone arms race had made bigger, crisper and less expensive than ever before. “That let me make something that was a lot lighter and cheaper, with a much wider field of view, than anything else out there,” he said.

From 2009 to 2012, while also taking college classes and working at the University of Southern California’s VR-focused Institute for Creative Technologies, Luckey poured countless hours into creating a working prototype from this core vision. He tinkered with different screens, mixed and matched parts from his collection of VR hardware, and refined the motion tracking equipment, which monitored the user’s head movements in real-time. Amazingly, considering the eventual value of his invention, Luckey was also posting detailed reports about his work to a 3-D gaming message board. The idea was sitting there for anyone to steal.

But, as Brendan Iribe put it to me, “Maybe his name is Luckey for a reason.” By that point, no one was interested in throwing more money away on another doomed virtual reality project.

Then, in early 2012, luck struck again when the legendary video game programmer John Carmack stumbled onto his work online and asked Luckey if he could buy one of his prototypes. Luckey sent him one for free. “I played it super cool,” he assured me. Carmack returned the favor in a big way: At that June’s E3 convention—the game industry’s gigantic annual commercial carnival—he showed off the Rift prototype to a flock of journalists, using a repurposed version of his hit game “Doom 3” for the demonstration. The response was immediate and ecstatic. “I was in Boston at a display conference at the time,” Luckey said, “and people there were like, ‘Dude, Palmer, everyone’s writing articles about your thing!’”

The rest, as they say, is virtual history: Over the next 21 months, Luckey partnered with Iribe, Antonov and Mitchell, launched a Kickstarter campaign that netted $2.4 million in funding—nearly ten times its initial goal—and joined the Facebook empire, thereby ensuring the company the kind of financial backing that most early-stage tech companies can only dream of.

The Oculus Rift is now entering its final stages of development—it’s slated for commercial release next year—and this fall Samsung will release a scaled-down product for developers and enthusiasts, powered by Oculus technology, that will clip over the company’s Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. But Luckey knows that success is by no means assured. “To this point, there has never been a successful commercial VR product, ever,” Luckey told me. “Nobody’s actually managed to pull this off.” Spend a few minutes inside the Rift, though, and one can’t help but believe that Luckey will be the one to do it.

***

“Oh, wow,” chuckled the older gentleman ahead of me in the Oculus demo room, his head nodding about with a Rift prototype, the DK2, slung like a pair of thick black ski goggles over his face. “Oh jeez. The guy’s right here.”

I tapped my foot impatiently. All day, I’d been giddy about my impending journey into the intoxicating new virtual world, and my time of revelation was achingly close. Finally, Joseph Chen, a bullet-headed Oculus product lead, ushered me onto the still-warm demo chair. This version of the Rift, he explained, had come a long way from earlier iterations. Whereas previously the headset’s dozens of tiny infrared LEDs—continuously monitored by a camera to mirror the user’s head movements—had been exposed, now they were invisible beneath the Rift’s smooth plastic veneer. Its software could render video at 75 frames per second (compared with high-definition TV’s paltry 24), making the virtual experience feel smooth and natural instead of nauseatingly choppy.

At long last, I strapped on the Rift—which, with my glasses on, made an uncomfortably tight fit—and braced myself to vault headlong into the future. And my first impression of said future, I must report, was that it was neat enough—but not quite mind-blowing. Mind-breezing, you might say.

As soon as the Rift came down over my eyes, I found myself hovering above an archipelago of verdant land masses, staring down at a cartoonish orange fox. This was Lucky (no relation), of “Lucky’s Tale,” a run-and-jump game in the mold of Nintendo’s “Super Mario” series. Yet the experience truly was different. I could gaze up and see clouds floating through a blue sky, look over to find a crashing waterfall, and peer around to get a better view of the swinging wooden mallets through which Lucky was supposed to navigate. At one point, a pair of sapphire butterflies fluttered right before my eyes, making me draw back in surprise.

The problem, though, was that I felt as if I was exploring Lucky’s world with wire mesh over my eyes. This is the so-called “screen door” effect—the product of the Rift’s screen being magnified so greatly that the black squares around the pixels become visible—and it’s a distracting barrier to the immersion process. But, in time, I felt myself learning to ignore the screen door and enjoy the Rift for what it was: a novel, immersive new digital medium. When Chen cued up a different program—a graphics demo in which you perch over a stone labyrinth filled with tiny marching dwarves—I started to grow legitimately excited about the Rift’s promise. As the minutes ticked by, my brain began to forget that this digital world wasn’t actually reality. With a tilt of my head, I could stare down into a glowing river of magma flowing between my legs, and it almost seemed as though I would scorch my hand if I reached down and touched it.

When the Rift arrives in stores, it will be an imperfect, fledgling product, but one that promises previously unimaginable new experiences. Luckey himself agrees with this assessment. “This is the Model T,” he told me. “We want to be where the Tesla is eventually. What we have now is something that’s affordable, that’s good enough for people, and that will be able to sustain the growth that’s needed to get to the Tesla.”

And what, I asked, is the VR equivalent of the Tesla in this analogy? Perfect virtual reality, he replied—by which he meant a digital experience that is indistinguishable from real life. “That’s the end goal,” he said. “We’ll get there within my lifetime.”

For now, though, Luckey is buoyantly happy with the development of the Rift, and with his role at Oculus. He doesn’t get to do as much engineering work these days, but rather than feel left out, he’s glad to leave the grunt work behind. “It wasn’t like I was handing off my baby to someone,” he explained. “It’s more like I was handing off changing the diapers to someone, and I still get the baby.” He remains plenty busy doing precisely what he loves: building excitement for what will be the first true wave of popular virtual reality—a wave that he, to his continual amazement, helped to create.

“All of a sudden, we haven’t just built a viable company,” he told me. “We’ve revitalized an entire segment of dreams. That’s...” Luckey paused for a moment, uncharacteristically short of words. “That’s super cool.”

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