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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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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.

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