The Rollercoaster Rift of Oculus: Part One: Palmer Luckey and the Kickstarter Dream

On 31st March 2017 Palmer Luckey left Oculus, the company that he founded on the basis of a dream. With Oculus he had helped lead Virtual Reality down a road that while filled with rather bumpy patches has ultimately brought VR into the mainstream once again, this time looking like it is here to stay.

Luckey, with his ambitious plans, love for VR and skill in portable design and engineering ended up taking what had become a shrinking hobbyist obsession into a billion dollar industry, gaining the attention and eventually the expertise of some of the biggest names in the business, and a net worth in the hundreds of millions. All of this before he turned 25.

Obviously there is a long future ahead for Luckey but with his time at Oculus definitively closed, a history can be provided of him, Oculus and the Rift it created. Pun intended. Here is part one, covering the rise from a hobbyist in his parent’s garage to one of the most important figures in technology.

Palmer Luckey's first VR headset, the PR1 (Prototype 1) Image Credit: Palmertech

Palmer Luckey’s first VR headset, the PR1 (Prototype 1) Image Credit: Palmertech

Early Life and Virtual Reality

By the time Palmer was born, Virtual Reality was already deep into its first wave of popularity, with Virtuality’s arcade machines already generating millions in revenue and fierce rivals Sega and Nintendo hard at work on VR machines, neither of which lived up to the potential of the concept. While Luckey was being home schooled Virtual Reality had diminished, with a dwindling number of devices with limited support and often crippling flaws.

The last attempt at that point by a major company to bring VR back was Sony’s PUD-J5A, a sort of snazzy looking HMD that never left Japan, only supported six games and was a steal at ¥60,000 (Roughly £440)! Everything else was either a full-on training simulator, cheap tat, massively undersupported or some kind of combination.

Luckey, an avid collector of Virtual Reality gear, was particularly frustrated by the lack of anything that was adequate enough for effective virtual reality. The displays were dim and hard to see, the field of view was such that it felt like looking down a cardboard tube at a new world, the high latency issues led to frequent motion sickness, and the sheer weight of the devices made them not terribly comfortable or usable as head mounted devices.

With an interest in engineering coming from his work with the “Portabilisation” forum ModRetro (enthusiast engineers who modify old hardware such as older game consoles into self-contained portable units), and upgrading his insane sounding six monitor gaming PC, as well as money made through working as a sailing tutor and iPhone repairman, Palmer set to work on his own prototype, a 90-degree field of view low latency rig by the name of the PR1. The path was clear from then on.

Palmer Luckey’s Monocular Prototype Image Credit: Palmertech

MTBS3D and the Oculus Prototypes

Luckey would soon join Meant to Be Seen 3D (MTBS3D), a 3D video and Virtual Reality enthusiast community around the time that it wasn’t entirely fashionable to be interested in VR. He would post updates fairly regularly to the site’s forum, experimenting with different prototypes and concepts, things such as extreme fields of view, lighter headsets, 3D stereoscopic vision and other concepts. A grand total of six prototypes were made in the three years since he joined, each tweaking and fixing the issues of the last. By the time of PR6, Luckey thought this was an idea that could go further.

Looking at the MTBS3D thread in hindsight, there is something incredibly small and close knit about everyone, rallying around and helping Palmer get his cottage industry off the ground. There are some answers as well which can only serve as almost poetic foreshadowing for the soaring heights and rough patches ahead, as well as the amusingly optimistic release dates. If you have the time to spend, seeing the growing excitement, Kickstarter jitters and seeing in almost real time how big the project would ultimately become.

Luckey formed a company, Oculus VR, simply to allow him to set up the Kickstarter, and the sixth prototype eventually got the name of “Rift”, which in Luckey’s own words is based “on the idea that the HMD creates a rift between the real world and the virtual world”. By this point he was a forum celebrity of sorts, with his journey from the PR1 to here being documented and eagerly read by MTBS3D members, one of which would be incredibly important to the future of Oculus.

Image Credit: John Carmack

Image Credit: John Carmack

Enter John Carmack

One of these members just so happened to be John Carmack, co-founder of iD Software, and one of the most important video game developers in its history, from both an intellectual property (co-creating Quake, Doom and Wolfenstein 3D does count for a lot) but also from a technological standpoint, with the iD Tech engines generally being at the bleeding edge of 3D graphics technology. iD Software has worked with VR before, with VFX1 support being added to the first Quake game officially, but this was a very different beast.

Carmack would ask to see a prototype, intrigued by Luckey’s concept. To Luckey, a lifelong PC gamer, this was one of his idols being interested in his device, so of course he shipped one of the two prototypes he had at that point over to iD Software in Texas, which let Carmack get right to work on the device.

From a hardware standpoint, all Carmack did was hot glue a motion sensor and tape a headstrap from a pair of skiing goggles onto the Rift. Software-wise, like he had many times before, Carmack changed the game. Luckey had boosted the Rift’s field of view in a way familiar to any Cardboard owner out there: magnifying the screen with a cheap lens. This warped the screen, giving it a fisheye view, however if you designed a piece of software to display in a way that counteracted the warped view, you could get an immersive VR experience for significantly less cost, both in terms of processing and physical costs than had been considered before, with a 90 degree field of view.

It is no surprise that Carmack would quickly code a version of Doom 3 (That would eventually become the BFG edition and due to later events no longer has Oculus Support) that distorted the image in a way that when viewed using the Rift looked incredibly immersive. This demo eventually was shown at E3, the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles, shown at a point in games where the current major trends were motion controls, but certainly not Virtual Reality. The Rift became an overnight sensation, and a couple of months later, Luckey would launch the Rift’s Kickstarter. In hindsight, this is the moment everything changed for VR forever.

Image Credit: Oculus, Kickstarter

Image Credit: Oculus, Kickstarter

The Kickstarter that Changed Everything

Looking back at the Kickstarter page and particularly the pitch video, it is very clear why Oculus stood out. That pitch video is possibly one of the most exciting and effective pitch videos ever uploaded onto the site: a slick, professional pitch bursting with enthusiasm and a geeky fascination for the topic and the product at hand. Industry bigwigs such as Brendan Iribe from middleware company Scaleform, then Design Director of Epic games Cliff “CliffyB” Blezinski, David Helgason, CEO of Unity Software, and Valve Software’s Gabe Newell, as well as comments from Carmack from E3 2012. In terms of PC developers and major industry figures these were huge names who had worked on massive hit games that pushed the limits of technology, and it looked good for Oculus (and in hindsight really good for Epic, Unity, Carmack and Iribe in particular to have links to Oculus) to have their support.

Luckey in particular came across brilliantly; a young tech wunderkind who adored VR but could articulate that love in a way other tech startups struggled. This was an era of Kickstarter after all which included such pitches as the Slingatron, a spiral device that could apparently if made big enough could throw objects into a space from the ground (shockingly, this didn’t make its target). Luckey stood out, not just among Kickstarter pitchers but among VR personalities as a whole, managing to pitch a dream in a way that Nintendo and Sega’s entire marketing teams failed to. His description of his dream of VR as well as current technical limitations is about as perfect a balance of technical know-how and easy explanations as you can get.

Dr Jonathan Waldern of Virtuality is probably the closest example to Luckey of an individual who could effectively communicate a love an interest and vision of Virtual Reality, but technology was not on his side and ultimately his company ran out of time. Luckey had the tech, he had the support, and he had the appeal of being a grassroots one-man band who had in his parent’s basement created a VR headset seemingly better than anyone else had before. That wasn’t entirely true of course, but it was a good story, one Oculus VR weaved in a way that no tech start-up has been able to since.

The only question of course is whether that story, the buzz generated by Carmack and what was clearly an amazing piece of tech could resonate with enough of the masses to allow Oculus to make it.

Within a day, the campaign generated $800,000 of its $250,000 initial goal. Oculus had its answer, and it was a resounding yes. By the end, Oculus made $2,437,429, nearly ten times its original goal, and everything suddenly got very serious.

Oculus' Second Development Kit - the DK2

Oculus’ Second Development Kit – the DK2

Growth

Oculus VR, at its inception a one man company essentially there to allow a Kickstarter and planning to send a few DIY development kits to interested enthusiasts, became a much bigger operation within weeks, forming an executive team which included, among others, Brendan Iribe from video game UI Middleware company Scaleform.

The campaign on the basis of its success had added a new tier for pre-assembled development kits, which increased the need for personnel. Its success also allowed for a much bigger scope with the machine itself. The original DK1 dev kit used a 1200×800 LCD screen which quickly was superseded by a switch to 1080p AMOLEDs, which were better quality displays with faster refresh rates to help eradicate motion blur.

These kits, the DK1 and later DK2 models, ended up in the hands of developers and eager Kickstarters, several of which would showcased early VR projects via another relatively new website coming into its own as a new media platform: Youtube. Crowd sourcing, crowd funding and crowd marketing were the keys to Oculus’ success, essentially spreading from one prototype and a few eager forum users to massive worldwide buzz and appeal.

2013 brought with it two major coups. The first involved John Carmack again. He had supported the Rift on and off while also working at iD Software but with Oculus growing so quickly and Carmack’s interest in iD waning (his last two games being the remastered Doom 3: BFG Edition mentioned earlier and the visually stunning RAGE, a game that becomes important to later parts of Oculus’ story) Carmack would leave iD software to join Oculus as Chief Technical Officer. To many this was seen as a coup, but one can only imagine Luckey’s response to having one of his idols be CTO of a company he founded and was getting bigger by the day. His software knowledge would end up paying dividends.

The other coup was a funding spree that eventually saw Oculus gain $75 million of investment from various venture capitalists, the biggest being Andreessen Horowitz. The pledges and goals were getting bigger, which led to worries about potential scale creep in the project. If Oculus kept trying to keep up with the advances very slowly crawling around it at the expense of not releasing a consumer Rift in time or at all, it could damage not only Oculus’ chances of staying afloat and creating their product but also stunt the growth of VR before it began.

At this point though there was little to worry about in terms of competition. The only other major VR project was Sony’s Project Morpheus, already three years in the making and based on ideas tried in the early 1990s, and ultimately would release half a year after the Rift. That made this an innovative unique investment and a lot of major companies were in line to try and snag Oculus.

In 2014, they would be acquired by one of the biggest.

Watch out for the next part of The Rollercoaster Rift of Oculus, as we take a look at Oculus’ purchase by one of the biggest companies in the world, the controversies that ensued, the final Rift that came out and the chain of events that made the VR Wunderkind an exiled pariah.

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