Palmer Luckey, creator of Oculus Rift and founder of the Oculus company, was the cover story for Time magazine’s August 17th issue. He is seen wearing his Oculus Rift headset and floating in front of a beach backdrop. While the internet had a field day meme-ifying Luckey’s likeness, he’s too busy getting ready for the next round of Oculus Rift pre-orders to mind.
The 22-year-old entrepreneur was born in Long Beach, California and grew up with three sisters. He was homeschooled, which gave him plenty of time to tinker with electronics. He made a hobby out of portablizing, or rebuilding old video-game consoles to produce handheld gaming devices. Luckey preferred reading science fiction and portablizing to playing outside with his siblings. He made money by fixing and selling used mobile phones, which he used to buy outdated virtual reality equipment at auctions. He would take the devices apart and try to modify and improve them. As a big fan of “The Matrix,” he set out to create a virtual reality experience that could simulate being “plugged in” to a different world.
In 2009, Luckey launched the popular online forum, ModRetro, where members describe their projects and trade tips on where to source parts. That same year, he joined another forum called MTBS3D, frequented by Virtual Reality enthusiasts. There, he would post updates on his progress with the head-mounted display (HMD) he was building in his spare time while he worked as a technician at the Mixed Reality Lab at the University of Southern California. Disappointed in the lack of affordable VR devices available for consumers, Luckey set out to develop his own.
In 2012 Luckey announced his plan to launch a Kickstarter for his HMD on MTBS3D. The device was in its sixth iteration by that time and had been named Oculus Rift, a reference to the Latin word for ‘eye.’ John Carmack, a notable game developer at id Software and a regular at MTBS3D, requested a prototype from Luckey. He showed off the Oculus Rift at E3, a gaming convention held in Los Angeles each year, and it became a sensation. Luckey founded his company, Oculus VR, and launched a Kickstarter for the Rift that summer, which raised $2,437,429 by September. The prototype, called the Rift Development Kit 1 (DK-1), was given as a reward to the 7,500 backers who pledged $300 or more on Kickstarter, and was later sold publicly for $300 on the Oculus VR website. Oculus sold a total 60,000 units before stopping production to work on a new prototype. They put together this video, which explains how the Oculus was developed and how it works, for their Kickstarter campaign:
Luckey was named a winner in the Popular Mechanics Breakthrough Awards in 2013, and made headlines again last March when Facebook announced it was buying Oculus VR for $2 billion. Some of Luckey’s Kickstarter supporters felt betrayed, but he explained on Reddit and other forums that the acquisition would allow Oculus to hire more engineers and release the best possible product. Even after making a $2 billion deal with Facebook, Luckey seems like the same nerdy kid from Southern California - almost everyone who interviews him notes that he likes to remain barefoot or in flip-flops, and he recently told The Telegraph that he’s still driving his 2001 Honda Insight, even though his one big purchase since the sale of Oculus Rift was a $130K Tesla partly because, he says, "Elon Musk is a cool guy who deserves my money."
Facebook has made it clear that they intend to make Oculus a social platform, alluding to other applications for communication and education. Indeed, we are seeing new potential uses for Oculus Rift and VR emerging all the time. Luckey is also enthusiastic about the future of the Rift, telling Popular Mechanics that “virtual reality is going to end up being a huge positive for humanity,” allowing people to enjoy luxuries they might not otherwise be able to afford, like traveling the world. It will be interesting to see what Luckey and his team accomplish now that they have the resources afforded to them by the recent acquisition of Oculus VR.