#1174: Palmer Luckey on Past, Present, & Future of XR: DK1, Valve Fallout, Why He Got Fired, & XR Projects at Anduril Industries

I had a chance to talk with Oculus Founder Palmer Luckey about the past, present, & future of XR where he reveals to me that his defense contracting company Anduril has more people employed working on VR than Oculus did when it was bought out by Facebook. Anduril is working on creating immersive virtual reality user interfaces, custom VR headsets, and some cutting-edge perception augmentation beyond sight. We cover what he’s working on now in VR now, where he sees XR and human augmentation going in the future, and also reflect on some of the early days of consumer VR as we start to hit various 10-year anniversaries and dig into some interesting oral history elaborations of VR regarding Valve, Sony, and what ultimately led to Luckey getting fired from Facebook.

We start with a the DK1 launch on March 29, 2013 as the 10-year anniversary is coming up next month, and then we talk about how his trip to Sundance 2012 with his Rift prototype with Nonny de la Peña’s Hunger in LA convinced him of the power of VR beyond gaming and gamers. We unpack some of the tensions that arose in the academic community, the early cooperation and collaboration with Sony and Valve, and then the subsequent fallout with Valve. We talk about some of the technical challenges that prevented the Oculus store from supporting competing headsets, with a deep dive into the differences between Valve’s OpenVR and OpenXR.

We then dig into what he can say about getting fired from Facebook, which the official reason provided was that there was no reason at all and he shares his perspective on why he was fired. Luckey confirmed that he willingly signed NDAs that had some finanical payout that has enabled him to start his next venture, but it’s still unclear what he can and cannot talk about. Blake Harris originally reported in his book History of the Future that Luckey would only receive the final portions of the money he was due from Facebook’s Oculus acquisition “if Luckey would be willing to leave the VR industry and sign a non-disparagement agreement (so that, in perpetuity, he’d been unable to say anything bad about Oculus, Facebook or the employees at either entity).”

Harris has the most extensive treatment of why Luckey got fired from Facebook covered in his History of the Future book, and in an UploadVR piece he wrote up a timeline of events that started on September 22, 2016 with a Daily Beast article “The Facebook Billionaire Secretly Funding Trump’s Meme Machine”. Harris writes, “In mid-September 2016, Palmer Luckey donated just shy of $10,000 to a recently formed pro-Trump non-profit organization called Nimble America. At the time of his donation, the entire body of Nimble America’s work consisted of putting up a single billboard in the Pittsburgh area.” But yet this got translated into articles like Ars Technica’s “Oculus Rift is Secretly Funding Donald Trump’s Racist Meme Wars” and Boing Boing’s “Facebook ‘Near-Billionaire’ Palmer Luckey Secretly Funding Racist Pro-Trump Hate Meme Machine.”

There wasn’t any evidence that Luckey was funding an extensive online meme war driven by racism, but yet the public perception of this created a PR nightmare for Facebook, which then put Luckey on a 6-month leave of absence before firing him on March 30, 2017 after the Zenimax lawsuit wrapped up. There weren’t any clear reasons ever provided, and UploadVR’s Ian Hamilton wrote up some reflections on the mystery here: ‘So… What Really Did Happen With Palmer [Luckey]’.

Luckey claims that he was fired due to political reasons, which the The Wall Street Journal seemed to confirm this to some degree by saying, “Internal Facebook emails suggest the matter was discussed at the highest levels of the company. In the fall of 2016, as unhappiness over the donation simmered, Facebook executives including Mr. Zuckerberg pressured Mr. Luckey to publicly voice support for libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, despite Mr. Luckey’s years long support of Mr. Trump, according to people familiar with the conversations and internal emails viewed by The Wall Street Journal.”

In a series of Tweets that are now deleted, Andrew Bosworth said, “As we told the WSJ, politics had nothing to do with Palmer’s departure. Any claims that his departure was do to his conservative beliefs are false.”

The WSJ article continues to say, “Mr. Luckey and his lawyer negotiated a payout of at least $100 million, representing an acceleration of stock awards and bonuses he would have received through July 2019, plus cash, according to the people familiar with the matter. The stock awards and bonuses were a result of selling his virtual-reality company, Oculus VR, to Facebook in 2014 for more than $2 billion, a deal that netted him a total of about $600 million.” Luckey confirmed to me that he has signed NDAs, but it’s not clear the conditions or deeper context of when or why he came to this agreement.

We wrap up our conversation by covering some of the command and control apps and immersive displays Anduril is building for the Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), which is a part of the Department of Defense’s Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) initiative to connect sensors and communications from all of the military services of the Air Force, Army, Marine Corps, Navy, and Space Force into a single network.

Luckey also talked a bit about some of the cutting-edge AR experimentation that he’s doing to hacking perceptual input beyond what we see — whether that’s through peripheral nervous system bypasses or using the tongue as an input device like the BrainPort Vision Pro.

I’m giving a Featured Session talk at SXSW this year on “The Ultimate Potential of VR: Promises & Perils” on Sunday March 12, 2023 at 4p CT, and I wanted to get some of the latest ideas of where XR is at and where it could be going, and Luckey may actually be even more on the bleeding edge of XR now that he’s not constrained by the scale of consumer VR. He’s able to push the edge of what’s possible with the medium, and he’s got some interesting takes on moving beyond the limits of our visual perception in how there might be other embodied inputs into the brain that changes how we might think about augmented reality and human augmentation in the future.

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Music: Fatality