How Palmer Luckey Created Oculus Rift
J Thoendell stashed this in Oculus
The young visionary dreamed up a homemade headset that may transform everything from gaming to medical treatment to engineering—and beyond.
“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.
Why Facebook bought Oculus:
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.
Luckey was born to do this:
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.”
His genius idea was to use cheap optics and fix it in software:
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.