#745: “The History of the Future” Book on Oculus’ Role in the Modern Resurgence of VR

blake-harris“The History of the Future” book was published on February 19th, and it’s a storified non-fiction account of the modern resurgence of virtual reality through the eyes of the founders of Oculus. Author Blake Harris was able to cultivate some extraordinary access to the founders of Oculus to tell many of the behind-the-scenes stories of the major events from the founding of Oculus through past the launch of the first consumer Rift (aka “CV1”).

Harris was also able to secure thousands of emails that are cited in throughout the book, which helps to fill in many gaps of knowledge between the collaboration between Valve and Facebook as well as how the open source ecosystem cultivation of Oculus was slowed shifted towards strategies of platform ownership pushed by the leadership of Facebook.

Harris was able to craft a super dramatic human story of innovation and risk that starts with a dream of virtual reality and slowly evolves into a full-blown start-up team, and eventually a unicorn acquisition that catalyzes the next phase of an entire spatial computing revolution. It’s a story that’s packed with dramatic tensions between logic versus intuition, pragmatism versus idealism, engineering versus marketing, and open ecosystems versus closed platforms. It’s integration of these different polar extremes that makes for a magical team combination of being at the right place at the right time with the right amount of passion, drive, vision, money, and luck.

While the narrative is super engaging and helps make this story a super fun read through the key moments and technological landscape of the history of the modern resurgence of VR, the problem is that from a historical perspective it’s very difficult to source where exactly the information is coming from. Harris chose to obfuscate the precise sourcing of information in order to build trust for engaging with employees within a publicly traded company.

This obfuscation actually makes for a more immersive and engaging story through artificially re-constructed dialogue, but it’s difficult to know precisely where the information is coming from and whose perspective is being preferenced whenever there are inevitable differences of opinion. In the absence of being able to triangulate different perspectives, then it ends up being a mysterious fusion of perspectives that ultimately is Harris’ unique perspective on the story.

I actually trust that it’s likely he gets many of the fundamental points correct, but this methodology is almost by definition going to be limited in trying to capture the full nuances of complexity and paradox that comes with any sufficiently meaningful human endeavor.

But with all of that said, there are aspects of this story that would have been impossible to tell had Harris tried to preserve the complexity of every nuanced disagreement, especially when Facebook allegedly deliberately tried to spread misinformation through Harris. Ultimately Facebook’s cooperation with Harris broke down after Harris suspected that Facebook was tried to mislead him for the reasons why Palmer Luckey was no longer working at Oculus. Harris claims that Facebook was insisted to him that it was Luckey’s choice to leave, but Harris was hearing contradictory information from multiple sources that led to Harris to believe that he was being systematically lied to. This eventually came to a head about a year after Luckey was fired when Facebook ultimately cut off access to Harris in the spring of 2018.

Harris alleges that Luckey was compelled to sign a non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreement with Facebook as part of his departure. If this is true, then Facebook is using it’s power and authority to suppress aspects of the truth that they want to keep secret. To me, this fosters an unethical relationship to the historical record through compelled suppression of deeper truths. Rather than handle difficult questions in a direct, authentic, and embodied way that would encourage retrospective contemplation and self-reflection, then Facebook chooses to deny and suppress the truth through tactics of silence, ghosting, and the explicit suppression of open dialogue through NDAs and non-disparagement agreements. They blindly march forward continuing to build new solutions that focused on the future while denying opportunities to be held accountable or learn lessons from retrospectively reflecting upon the past.

If there’s any set of questions that I have for Facebook, then it’d be “Did you have Luckey and/or Iribe sign an NDA or non-disparagement agreement? If you truly believe in transparency, then why do you have former employees sign NDAs and non-disparagement agreements? What are you trying to hide? Why are you using your power and money to promote secrecy and the promotion of incomplete narratives in the historical record?”

Harris sent me an advanced copy, and so I was able to read the book ahead of release and then conduct this interview with him the day before the book’s official release date. We talked about many of the topics above, and he game me additional context about his journey in writing the book, some of the topics that didn’t make the cut, additional insights and quips from Carmack’s emails, and more about the challenges he faced in covering Luckey’s cultural fallout.

“The History of the Future” is a huge contribution for helping to document how far virtual reality ecosystem has evolved over the past eight years. It’s a monumental effort to focusing so deeply on a single story that represents a major turning point in the evolution of immersive and spatial computing. But I also see it as a first draft, as there are many more perspectives, more stories, and more history to be told. Hopefully this book will become a center point of conversation that allows even more stories and perspectives to be shared.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So in 2014, Blake Harris published Console Wars, which was a narrativized history of Sega and Nintendo and the evolution of video games. And after he published that book, then he started to turn his attention on starting to tell the story of the evolution of Oculus. He was able to cultivate a lot of different connections and get some pretty extraordinary access to Oculus, especially a couple of weeks before the launch of the CV1 in 2016, he was essentially granted Carp launch access to be able to ask any Oculus slash Facebook employee, and it was basically up to them whether or not they wanted to talk to him. Well, after cultivating all of these different relationships with so many different people over many years, he was able to accumulate all sorts of different primary source documentation and talk to many different sources. And then he basically synthesized that all into sort of a story that has this constructed dialogue based upon the information that he's trying to synthesize from all these different various sources. So the History of the Future was released on Tuesday, February 19th, 2019, and I had a chance to talk to Blake on the 18th of February to be able to unpack this whole journey that he's gone on and to ask some very specific questions about things that he brought up in the book, to get a little bit more context, and to talk a little bit about his falling out with Facebook, because actually he had a whole disagreement and falling out with Facebook, so then they ended up restricting his access. And I also say that Palmer Luckey is featured quite prominently throughout the entire book, and I know there's been a lot of things that have been reported on Palmer Luckey. And he really digs into some of the other side of that story. In some ways, you kind of look at the history of the future as a representation of all the things that Palmer Luckey might have been able to say, but has, for a variety of different reasons, been unable to address some of these various different issues. The book addresses that, but it also, more than anything else, I think it just kind of weaves together this story and this narrative about this whole revolution of virtual reality from a real historical perspective and trying to really lay down the key moments over the past seven years. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Wasted VR Podcast. So, this interview with Blake happened on Monday, February 18th, 2019, while Blake was in New York and I was in Oregon. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:34.352] Blake Harris: So I'm Blake Harris. I am an author. I wrote a book called Council Wars that came out in 2014, and then I've spent most of the past five years, I guess, writing a new book called The History of the Future about the founding of Oculus and then the acquisition by Facebook and following the core players there and putting it together for a story.

[00:02:54.069] Kent Bye: Great. So maybe you could start by telling me a little bit about how did this project come about?

[00:02:59.113] Blake Harris: Sure. It started kind of in two ways. One is that I remember talking to my literary manager right before Council Wars came out and sort of lamenting to him that it was exciting, but sad that I would never write a book as good as Council Wars again. And he said, no, no, no, you'll keep getting better at writing with each book. And I said, yeah, yeah, I know. I hope so. But I just never thought I'd find a topic that had such interesting characters, such an interesting story, such an intersection of technology, entertainment, culture, pop culture. education, innovation, all that stuff. And then eventually I tried the DK2 headset for the first time at E3. And I guess it very much remains to be seen whether Oculus and this revolution in VR will match the imprint of Sega Nintendo. But that was what really got me excited. And the other thing that is not to be underrated was that Console Wars was my first success, my first writing that was out there. I had a day job trading commodities for eight years. selling coffee and soybeans and sugar and also buying them for Brazilian clients. So Consul Wars was me getting to become a writer and it was a very new experience. There was press for the first time and someone wrote an article about me for Popular Mechanics and it was a really big deal because it was the first time someone wrote about me and my dad came to the photo shoot and the issue came out on Mother's Day in 2014 and everyone in my family, we were out for brunch, was really excited about this. issue because their son, their nephew, whatever was going to be in it. And I went to the bodega and I bought the issue and on the cover was Palmer Lucky and an article about Oculus, which I vaguely knew about, but not that much. And I was way more interested in that than I was the article about myself. So I was always like, this is a good sign. If I was like, mom, hold on, I got to read this article. This is pretty interesting. That's how it kickstarted for me. And then I think anyone who's familiar with my work Which is not a ton, because it's mostly console wars and some oral histories and conversations that I've done for How Did This Get Made. I really like character-driven stories, and so for me to tell the story the way I'd like to tell it, it really requires a lot of access to the central characters. And so I think from after E3, I was introduced to Palmer and some of the people at Oculus, and then it ended up taking 14 months to get the access that I was looking for that would let me tell the story how I had thought I wanted to tell it.

[00:05:24.044] Kent Bye: Right. So I have to say that it was an amazing read. I really enjoyed reading it. It was fun to look at this history through the lens of these characters. And I'd say probably one of the things that either myself or other people will have the most problem with is I don't know where this information is coming from. So I know that you have talked to many different people, but you've kind of narrativized it in a way that doesn't have explicit sources. And there's this trade-off between what I do on my podcast, which is do these direct oral histories with, you know, who's saying what, but you're trying to, in some ways, weave together the larger narrative But obfuscate in some ways, how exactly this information came together, or how are you fusing all these different perspectives together? So maybe you could tell me a little bit about your process for how you take in all this information and then translate that into this dialogue and this story that you're been able to create.

[00:06:18.365] Blake Harris: Sure. So I mentioned the author's note that to me, my background in writing oral histories, which is really what I've been doing for the past few years, and probably my preferred choice to consume story really did inform my decision making and also in documentary filmmaking. But to your point, in almost every case, the information or the quotes are not attributed to the source that provided it to me. And having been on both sides of it with oral histories and with this, I see the pros and the cons of both formats. This story, especially as it was happening and taking place at a public company, I felt like it was pretty important and very helpful that the information was not traced back to specific sources. Also with stuff that happens with Palmer at the end, it was definitely advantageous to me to have a lot of potential sources so that nobody could really ever know exactly where some of these things came from. But I guess my first draft looks a lot like an oral history. I personally transcribe all my interviews. I record everything and then I basically just break it down into different sequences, and it starts off as an oral history, and then I try to put it into more of a narrative format, so I think it'll be easier to read. And then in this case, something that was a luxury I didn't have with my previous book, and one that I also thought was important for perhaps the reasons that you might be getting at about credibility and how you can make sure that you're trusting that this is fair and balanced, or at least that this is authentic, I had access to so many emails and memos that I tried to include a lot of them verbatim or to include them as a character might have been reading them, you know, in sort of a different stylistic format. But that was kind of my approach to writing it.

[00:07:51.438] Kent Bye: Well, I have to say that I've been covering this community for a while, and there's a lot in the book that I didn't know about, a lot of gaps that fills into the history. And to me, I see it as a first draft because just as an example, there's been lots of intrigue as to what exactly this collaboration between Valve and Oculus was. I think you've provide more details than I've ever seen in terms of a pretty compelling narrative story for how that went down. You said that you had access to Facebook, but what kind of access did you have into what was happening with Valve and also some of those meetings and how that collaboration between those two companies were? If you're able to actually talk to people within Valve, or this is mostly from the perspective of Oculus?

[00:08:32.987] Blake Harris: Well, a few things there. One is that I'm glad that you mentioned that you sort of see this as a first draft, because even on my own, even though it's printed now in hardcover and it's bound, I plan to put out a list of additions, clarifications, and then some corrections tomorrow. And I plan to update that as more information comes in, because it is such a recent story, it is evolving. Now that the book's out there, people have come to me with more information, and I'm happy to say that in almost all cases, it's not to refute anything in there, but more to just add additional perspective, and I'm sure that I won't be the only person drafting second drafts or third drafts of the story, because I think it's an important story like you do, but I will be wanting to update it. In terms of the access that I had with Facebook, so starting in February of 2016, a month before they launched the CV1 of The Rift, Basically, it was, I could be introduced to anyone at Oculus or Facebook, and it was up to that person whether they wanted to talk to me, but I was someone who, a journalist who, it was okay for them to talk to, and then I could have my relationship as intimate or not as they wanted and as I wanted. And it's a good question about Valve, because unfortunately, nobody currently at Valve responded to any of my requests to speak. So, I'll get to one thing in a second. I made an enemy in the process. But you also, at least for the part of the story pre-acquisition, some of the more central players at Valve, like Michael Abrash and Otman Binstock, were at Valve. So though maybe they have a bias or an incentive to tell more of an Oculus-driven story, they at least were giving me a perspective, along with other ex-employees. But like I said, I've had very limited conversations with Joe Ludwig or Alan Yates. Yeah so it was mostly from an Oculus perspective and I made that point to Chet that I said that he was a storyteller and that when you speak to only one side of a he said she said story you're going to end up with a heavy emphasis on one side and he took that as a threat which I thought was weird because I thought that was just a common sense thing to say that I've said to a lot of sources and obviously I was not threatening him in any way.

[00:10:39.530] Kent Bye: Yeah, no, that, that makes sense because you know, valve is notoriously pretty closed and secretive and I've been able to, most access I've had has been at these conferences, but I have been able to actually make a visit to valve and walk around. But that said, getting things on the record is not as easy sometimes, but anyway, it sounds like that you were able to get part of that story from people that were at valve at that time, but.

[00:11:00.367] Blake Harris: To me, that was- Well, I would say that just in general, I always deferred to first-hand archival, which most of the time was email. I have plenty of emails from 2013 that are 25-page-long threads between Oculus and Valve and various people. I'm sure that they thought that that was irrelevant or information that didn't pertain to the primary discussion at some points, but for me, that was a lot of times a goldmine and gave me a sense into what it looked like both sides or different people at these companies were thinking.

[00:11:29.905] Kent Bye: Yeah. How is it that you came across access to emails? I mean, I could see talking to people, but that seems pretty extraordinary that you're able to get so much documentation. Like, I mean, I know from my perspective, this is a hugely historical series of events that happened, but why is it that they decided to open up all these email archives and give you access to that?

[00:11:50.707] Blake Harris: Oh, it's a great question. I mean, it's one that I'm grateful for, because like I said, I obviously relied on that above all else. I think that it was not provided to me from Facebook or from Oculus. It was provided to me by individuals sharing various emails and some sharing a lot more than others. But I think a lot of it, I mean, it was twofold. One, I think is what you described. I think a lot of people that participate in this think that it was historic and wanted the record. to be set straight. And I think also, I would even say that some of them felt like the record was not straight, which is maybe just a byproduct of how stories are reported or news is consumed, you know, if you have Palmer lucky on the cover of Wired, it makes it seem like sometimes to some that like Oculus is a one-man show, when obviously we know that that's not the case, not to take anything away from Palmer, but it's so obviously a team effort, and so other members of the team wanting to make sure that their contributions were represented. And then the other thing is that, you know, after Consul Wars, the first book I wrote took me three years, but for part of that time I did have a day job, and so I was kind of curious what my next project would be and particularly how long it would take me and it ended up taking me like I said like four plus years or three and a half years of specifically working on it and while that's certainly very annoying to my wife or to my parents who are like when are you gonna be done with this book and also to my publisher since the book was originally due in September of 2016 there is a very nice byproduct in many cases of having years-long relationships with these people and building trust you know I definitely didn't get they weren't just like hey great to meet you here's a stack of emails it was something that evolved over time and I also in a lot of cases try to be pretty open with sharing my writing as it's in progress or at least writing based on certain people's anecdotes or memories so they can guide me at times or at least provide feedback and sometimes they don't like that I don't take their feedback but I at least try to give people the opportunity to weigh in.

[00:13:38.995] Kent Bye: Well, for anybody that's a part of the VR community, which I'm assuming anybody that's a listener to the Voices of VR podcast is going to be somewhat familiar with the events that transpired with Facebook and especially with Palmer Luckey and his mysterious exit. At what point did Facebook cut off access to you? What was the date in which they stopped your relationship officially?

[00:14:00.445] Blake Harris: So it wasn't until like a, so Palmer, so the story. That broke the news, the Daily Beast article, you know, the Facebook billionaire secretly funding Trump's mean machine was in September, September 22nd, 2016. Palmer's last day was about six, a little over six months later, March 30th, 2017. And my relationship with Facebook didn't come to an end until April of 2018, so a year after that. And it was sort of a bit of a slow process, but a lot of it came because of exactly what you were describing at the top of the show, that because of my narrative nonfiction style and intentionally non-attributional, I felt like I was being lied to, systematically or at least consistently, by a variety of sources. And because I was getting confirmation from various sources, and also because it seemed to me like Palmer was, you know, legally wasn't allowed to talk about this stuff, so I was only really getting one version, I began to grow suspicious, and I submitted a chapter that did attribute the information, and that was what set off the end of the relationship. when they were not happy that the information was actually coming back to specific sources, who either, I mean, I later found out, I believe, I mean, that information I was given was not accurate, and I believe it was intentionally deceptive, so I assume that that was what the problem was, but I can't speak for what was going through their minds. And then it was particularly with Palmer's exit, you know, like, There's a lot of unknowns around his exit, or there were, and there's also, in any story, there's some degree of perspective. But when they're telling me things that I later learned were just outright false, like that it was Palmer's choice to leave, or that he didn't follow protocols when they did an internal investigation that said he did, you know, again, I deferred to Actual archival text so that it was not so much based on people's opinions and I found the information I was being given by them was not matching what the reality seemed to be Yeah, well in the book.

[00:15:58.121] Kent Bye: It's sort of left ambiguous. I mean why was Palmer lucky fired?

[00:16:02.944] Blake Harris: What I have been I still continue to chase the story, and I have a little bit more information. But I mean, it's like, by design, it's almost ambiguous still. The additional information that I have obtained is that after the ZeniMax trial, which ended the beginning of February, and in the book it mentions that Palmer got a call from his attorney that Facebook planned to fire him. What had happened after that trial, and basically the time when Palmer was supposed to return to Oculus, was that The company had reorganized a month and a half earlier in December, and the five managers, the heads of the different divisions, like Jason Rubin in content, and Liz Hammond, and Brendan Reeb in the PC division, none of them had a place for Palmer on their team. So ultimately, Mark Zuckerberg and Mike and strap, you know fired Palmer after there was no place for Palmer on any of these teams But I think that it's really hard to look at that in a vacuum and not look at the previous six months of how things went at Facebook when he was not allowed to come into work, not allowed to communicate with employees, and also, most importantly, I just think there was no clarity for what had happened, and people, employees were reading about what had happened, and it was a pretty grim picture if what they were reading was what they believed to be true. So it's a complicated situation, but I believe politics definitely has something to do with it.

[00:17:25.564] Kent Bye: So we should probably cover a little bit of what happened with Palmer that sort of led to this big PR crisis that would perhaps be a part of why he was cut loose. So you wrote an article for Upload VR, I think probably sometime in 2017, that was really trying to itemize the sort of flow. And after reading the book, I can understand why you published that. Had you seen Palmer's spreadsheet in his own timeline before you put together your timeline? Or was what you published on upload somehow directly influenced with what Palmer had written?

[00:17:57.844] Blake Harris: I'm trying to think. I believe that Palmer shared his Google document, which you're referring to in the book, basically Palmer puts together his thoughts and his reaction to the press in the weeks that follow it. I believe I'd seen that almost in real time, so I must have seen it in advance of that. Yeah, so I had seen that ahead of time.

[00:18:15.174] Kent Bye: And so did you base your article upon that information, or did you do your own sort of timeline of that?

[00:18:21.577] Blake Harris: Oh, I did my own timeline. my timeline, the original raw, I mean, the article and upload is very, very long. It's way longer than his Google document. And I also wanted to include the tweets because I thought that social media did create sort of a feedback loop of causing more articles. But yeah, I mean, I don't think I thought much about his Google document while I was crafting mine, though perhaps it influenced in some way since I had seen it in advance.

[00:18:48.908] Kent Bye: Well, I think that one of the things that's happening in the media right now is that you have these events that happen and then these very hot takes that people have that maybe have incomplete information. I think probably the most recent good example of that is this conflict that happened between the MAGA teenager at Washington, D.C. from a Catholic school with this Native American veteran. there was one clip that was sent out and saying what the story was and that they were, you know, screaming, tear down the wall. And then, you know, when I looked at that video, I was like, I didn't hear them saying that. And then, you know, I ended up watching the whole video later and I was like, wait a minute, I'm not hearing this. And then, it sort of came out later that that initial hot take was just wrong, but it just spread so quickly. But there was at least a little bit of a reflection of this mass spread of information without perhaps doing some due diligence. So I feel like in some extent, what you're trying to make the argument is that something similar happened to Palmer Lucky, but yet this was before we had this more self-reflective ability to look at the information. And in the case of the video from Washington, D.C., there was actual video that people go and watch. Right. Whereas this was sort of a reported stuff that was occluded from what people could actually see what the actual story was. But there seems to be like this deeper thread of being on the other side of this social media outrage and a certain story that was told. And in some sense, you have to overcome that story for who Palmer is, especially because he's the central character in your entire book. So I'm just curious how you are handling that or how you approach this, somebody that may be seen as a persona non grata within a community because of their impression of what happened during this event, like how you overcome that?

[00:20:35.675] Blake Harris: A lot of good questions. I mean, certainly for me, it was an eye-opening experience just as someone who sort of had a front row seat or was following it very closely because it was relevant to my work and also knowing a bit about Palmer's politics beforehand. I had spent in the prior two months, that was in September, like, you know, for the previous two months, I had, he had told me a couple months earlier that he had been a Trump supporter. I was surprised because I didn't know that many. And personally, I'm very much not a Trump supporter. And just in general, I felt like that made this situation a little bit difficult for me. And ultimately it was a good challenge because his politics are very different than my own, but I felt like it was still important to get to the truth and to get to where the story was coming from. I think it's not a coincidence that the Covington situation that you're talking about and the Palmer situation, they do have this thing in common of supporting Trump and the way that those stories seem to spread. And I guess for me, the first thing that I thought when I read the article in the Daily Beast, and then which was followed up by so many other articles about Palmer being responsible for a meme factory or trolling or political disinformation or whatever, my first thought was that the story was about An organization that I noticed was only like a week old, so that seemed a little suspect to me. Then just the whole thing with the memes, like, there was never any actual memes being shown, because in reality, Nimble America had only put up one billboard, so it felt like people were jumping to conclusions. It also just felt weird to me that people weren't asking, like, well, what exactly is the crime here? What did this organization do? Or is it more about what they were going to do? And it was... I have so many thoughts on this issue. I'm trying to figure out the best way to answer it. But for me, it was just such a really eye-opening experience because I felt like I was the only person who actually talked to the people that were involved. I obviously talked to Palmer about it, but I also talked to Milo Yiannopoulos, whose name was implicated in the story and found out what his role was. I talked at length to the founders of Nimble America because I wanted to see their perspective. And I also just wanted to make sure that because of the unsavory insinuation of the group, I wanted to make sure that they really were genuine in what they were saying, you know, that they were not some sort of white supremacist group as reported. And then I was, I was surprised that given the role that that whole situation played, and you can say it's either because of politics or just because of the PR aspect, but that role that it played in Palmer's Lack of role at Facebook that nobody there even talked to the people involved. I thought that was a little bit weird but something I wanted to get to was you mentioned that coming to an example with the Native American and the reflection a couple days later I don't remember what sparked it if it was additional videos at first or if it was the statement that a Classmate had made but you said like, you know almost like we weren't at that point back then was kind of how I took your comment but I think a lot of it was because as you know from reading book Palmer and It was not really allowed to make a statement, or at least if he wanted to keep his job, he wasn't allowed to make a statement. So I think that had he made a statement, at least in retrospect, it probably would have offered a different perspective on the matter. And I sort of wish that we could A-B test this whole thing and see how it would have played out. Because I'm curious.

[00:23:50.109] Kent Bye: Yeah. Well, for me, whenever there's a PR crisis, the number one rule is to just don't engage and just shut up about it and then hope it goes away, which I see that as a theme in the book of silence, silence being taken as a strategy. I mean, I see that repeated a number of times. For me, I always want to just engage in dialogue about it. But I think this actually gets to what I see as a little bit of a tension between this idea that there's a unified grand central narrative, like a singular truth. versus something where there's many different perspectives. On my podcast, I try to take the approach of showing many different approaches and many perspectives, but both in your book as well as in media in general, there tends to be a sense that there's a singular story and a narrative that is the absolute truth. And I think that both can be true. Like, there can be an underlying grand narrative, but there can also be lots of different deviations from that.

[00:24:42.075] Blake Harris: One thing just maybe that we're not as far apart as you would think or that I think it's more that I like Linear storytelling, but I I don't think I would say that this book that I wrote is the oculus story There's no other potential oculus stories out there. You know, this is my synthesis of a bunch of different perspectives and clearly focused on Palmer's and the other founders more than anyone else But you know, I would never describe this as the grand unifying only story, you know as a storyteller I know that it's also the matter of perspective. So I just wanted to put that out there so you didn't think I was trying to disagree with you on this point.

[00:25:15.865] Kent Bye: Well, I think so the way that existing news works is that you write the story and then you get a quote and then the quote is like not the full context. And so with the podcasting medium, I feel like I have the luxury to give that full context and handle a lot more nuance and not have to reduce things down to like a seven second soundbite. What I see how that plays out with the communications mediums that have been mostly linear is that if I want to have a conversation with someone at Facebook about this, I would love to just like talk to a bunch of people on the record, but they're resistant to do that for a number of different reasons. There's a lot of risk involved being able to actually talk about things that they don't want to talk about. And when there's things that they're trying to keep secret, it's easier to just send out a very specific quote rather than just actually engage in an extended conversation about it. And so I feel like there's a bit of the way that the media structures have been up to this point that These companies are having a hard time adapting to this, going live, having an embodied conversation in real time about something where they can actually get challenged on some of these issues.

[00:26:21.242] Blake Harris: Well, I think that's pretty interesting and I'd like to talk to you about some more of that, but I kind of have a question for you because I am a big podcast listener, unsurprisingly, as the guy who wrote two 500-page books. I love long-form content and I much prefer listening to you speak with someone for 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 30 minutes than a two-minute story on NPR. But I think that the main reason that podcasting still works and is a great format for that is because people aren't curating it yet. I mean, if you have President Obama's giving a speech for 90 minutes and Fox News is taking only like 10 seconds of it, it's the same thing. 90 minutes is still a long form content. Someone could just say, oh, headline, Blake doesn't believe in grand unifying story theory. His book's a fraud. Kind of just take what you want. I'm just almost grateful that people have not started doing that for podcasts that much. And I wonder if that's a worry of yours as someone who has been doing this for years and likes that freedom of context. Basically, the context still remains. Nobody is trying to offer to slant it down yet.

[00:27:20.703] Kent Bye: Well, I look at someone like Joe Rogan or Sam Harris or Jordan Peterson where they're having these very extended conversations with the full context and I see how they're able to dive in a lot more nuance. And so I just see it that it's complementing the existing reduction of complexity. Like I feel like whenever you try to like write down a story you sort of have to reduce the complexity but in your case I think that you're able to really tune into the deeper story it's almost like this alchemical distillation to get to the the heart of the story but I mean it took you like four plus years to be able to do that and this one story and that you know, for me, I'm able to rapidly iterate and fail fast in the sense where I might have an idea about what the truth is, I might send out a tweet, and then that may lead to a conversation, and then I have an extended conversation, and then I put that out, and if there's something wrong, then I have the next conversation. So for me, I see that these long-form conversations are complementing what is happening with the reduction down to the linear story. So it's not like it's one or the other, but they're really complementing each other.

[00:28:22.790] Blake Harris: All right, I'm glad to hear you say that. That makes sense. I mean, because I guess to your point, there are people out there that condense Sam Harris or Joe Rogan down to things that, you know, down to a sentence. And a lot of times it seems like it's not accurate based on when I listen to a full podcast of theirs. But I guess to your point, people actually still listen to the podcast, not saying, oh, I'd rather just read this paragraph about them. I guess as long as you're able to still directly engage your audience, then it's not really going to be a problem. But I was curious about what you were saying. Do you think that you'll be able to get somebody from Facebook to come on the show and talk to you about some of this stuff? Because I would love to hear that in your perspective.

[00:28:56.835] Kent Bye: I would love, I mean, I'm in the process of trying to convince them to do that. They actually sent out a statement to TechCrunch about your book. So at the end of Lucas Matney's article that I guess you had passed along to him this extended email from Facebook talking about how Facebook wanted to buy Unity and that was a whole other very interesting sort of thing that was mentioned in the book, but really expanded in this article. And then he asked Facebook for comments and they said, The book doesn't get everything right, but what we hope people remember is the future of VR will not be defined by one company, one team, or even one person. This industry was built by a community of pioneers who believed in VR against all odds, and that's the history we celebrate. So, just curious your thoughts on that.

[00:29:39.850] Blake Harris: I think that's an awesome statement. I mean, it's in line with every statement that Facebook has made over the past year. When there's an article that they don't like, they say not everything in it is true. They don't specify what about it's not true, how untrue it is. And I feel like I was really glad that John Carmack decided to share his opinions. You know, he mentioned that he read the first half of the book and found it to be completely accurate. I suspect that he'll feel the same way about the second half of the book. I don't know, I feel like their statement didn't say anything, so it's hard for me to have much of an opinion one way or the other.

[00:30:11.760] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I mean, the first statement of this book doesn't get everything right. To me, that's like, as a historian, I'm like, what a, like, that's not actually giving any useful information. If there's something historically inaccurate about this history that you're giving, then I would love to know what that is so that we can talk about it. So to me, that's just, and then everything else is a little bit of like, the story about the community is something that I've been trying to cover. I think it's a hard story to try to capture and tell. But I think for you, actually, that's something that I remember talking to you and there's a bit of getting at when I first talked to you, I didn't know exactly what story you had or what you were working on. And so at first I was like, well, that's maybe not necessarily the most interesting thing that's interesting to me. But after reading the book and after really thinking about it, and actually I was in Las Vegas for a Zero Latency demo and actually had a chance to hang out with Jim Redner and Eric Schumacher. You know, they were the PR reps for Oculus from the early days. And so I actually got into this debate to them because I was like, well, there's so much that happened within the field of VR that came from this academic community. there should be an emphasis on those aspects as well and not just like this singular story but in the process of talking to them they said well do you think that vr would have taken off like it did had this not happened and i thought about and it's like no actually not it's really that purchasing of oculus by facebook actually is a huge turning point and a signifier to the entire gaming industry but also the entire tech industry that this was actually legitimate and that people should take it seriously. It was almost that acquisition that at the time was reported for $2 billion but ended up being more, somewhere between $3-4 billion. that that was a sign that this was a legitimate thing that was now happening. It really legitimized the medium as a whole and the distribution of dev kits early, a democratized dev kit. I mean, I bought a dev kit on January 1st, 2014 and within a week I had my dev kit and I was able to actually go to a game jam and actually create my first VR experience within the first three weeks of owning a VR headset. not knowing anything about VR just, you know, three weeks prior. And to me, there was that level of democratized access of the dev kits that did more than anything else I could possibly imagine, both the DK1 and DK2, to bootstrap the entire immersive industry. Because once Valve came out with their dev kits, you had to be within their own list of people to have access. I mean, it wasn't like just anybody could get them, but this was like a full open cultivation of the ecosystem that I think is undeniable the role that that had in terms of catalyzing this whole entire immersive industry. And that in a lot of ways, this book is filling on a lot of the gaps of that story, but also just really telling all the different dynamics of how that came about.

[00:32:52.172] Blake Harris: Yeah, I mean, I think that when people think of the early days of Oculus, and especially members of the community, you know, you think about Palmer, and obviously, Palmer played an enormous role to your point of what we're talking about, like, if not for him, this doesn't happen. But so much of that democratization and really making developers the customer and not shooting for the end consumer, or even just hobbyists, was the result of that, in my mind, the marriage between Palmer and then the Scaleform guys, particularly Brendan Areave, Nate Mitchell, and Mike Antonoff. And so I thought from a business standpoint, it's interesting, because you see the effects of some of those decisions that they make early on. Another thing that I've thought about a lot, because I had a lot of time with this book, You know, I did speak with a bunch of people in academia, a bunch of people at USC in particular, and I shared some of that with you. And the theme that you probably picked up, or at least that I remember from the conversations, almost all of them felt like they didn't get enough credit. And then at times I would ask them, like, well, what does enough credit look like? What do you want? And there was never really a good answer, because I don't know that there is a good answer. You know, like, I can understand why they feel like, oh, Palmer's on the cover of Wired, but that never would have happened if not for all the years of work that we did or the year that he had in the lab. And I understand that. And I know that Palmer even probably mentioned some of that stuff in the interview, but like, I don't know how it's actually supposed to look in a way that. makes everyone happy and feel like they're properly credited.

[00:34:13.323] Kent Bye: Well, I think it's a hard problem, but I was looking at your book in that lens, and I think there's a lot of things, like the algorithms that are being used, anything that they look at the literature. I know there's a moment when Michael Agbarash was saying, well, bin stocks have read all the literature. Well, all that literature means that in order to become an expert, you have to get from that. There's even language, like the three-dof versus six-dof, You know, when Palmer saying that he's not creating that language, that language is coming from a specific community that has been working on VR, you know, starting back in the late sixties and then really throughout the late eighties and nineties. And so there's this, this huge ecosystem of people. And I was at an IEEE VR conference in March of 2015, and Oculus had just gotten awarded an achievement award. And there was a lot of frustration, especially because that was after the Wired magazine article had come out and really had cast this story as like the boy genius of Palmer basically invented VR. And I think that is a bad story because I do think that there are all of these different people from academia that have been working on this for years. All the stuff about latency, all the stuff about how they know what they need to get in order to get a comfortable experience. That's just not jargon that they're making up. It's actually coming from this community, but it's hard to always look at something that's being contributed to this larger ecosystem. And to be able to point to those contributions when you're trying to reduce things down into a linear story, because it's just something that is a part of the larger cultural context, but difficult to pinpoint the evolution of how, where everything came from.

[00:35:46.345] Blake Harris: Yeah. And I mean, that's something that I struggled with. I used to stand behind what I did, but I think there's a version of telling the story where Palmer's the only character, or is the only character, or I tried to make it as much of an ensemble as possible, especially in the early days. But even from there, to your point, like when they bring in Steve LaValle, the roboticist, the knowledge that he's bringing and his experience with VR are learned from other people. we wouldn't be in the same place without those people. And I don't know as a storyteller, even not necessarily just in a linear way, what's the proper way to honor them or to even make it seem like, you know, when my mom's reading this book, I don't want her to think Palmer invented VR. I want her to think that he invented the Rift or a prototype of the Rift that then this team worked on together. So at least I try to be conscious of these things, I guess.

[00:36:35.745] Kent Bye: Well, I think from my perspective, I want to try to have conversations with each of these people just to hear what they have to say. But I would be really curious to talk more to the USC folks. You alluded to something very intriguing in the book, but didn't really follow up on you said that there was an agreement that Palmer had to sign with Mark Bolas. Can you tell me a little bit more about what that agreement was? And what came of that?

[00:36:56.025] Blake Harris: Yeah, so Mark was the head of the lab, or at least oversaw Palmer in the USC mixed reality lab at ICT, and prior to forming Oculus, Palmer signed an agreement with Mark to give him a percentage of equity in Oculus and any other VR venture, I believe in perpetuity, a non-diluted share, and that ended up becoming a real problem, and they unwound that agreement once Brandon got involved prior to the Series A. You know, that was mentioned. It took me a little while to learn about that agreement and the way that it was phrased to me was that really unfair agreement, assuming that I had heard about it elsewhere. I think that the agreement that Palmer signed and that Mark presented for him to sign is not customary in academia, at least amongst the people that I spoke with to get their perspective on it. And that's probably why Brandon and Palmer were successfully able to get out of it. But it seemed like a pretty inappropriate agreement to ask a 19 year old to sign.

[00:37:55.414] Kent Bye: Wow. So this is, these are the type of details that are very intriguing. I think I would want to like figure out like what happened and talk to Mark and yeah, well anyway, um, what else in the book didn't make the cut that you weren't able to actually sort of include within this book? I understand there was a issues around length and that you had a lot to say and that you couldn't say everything, but what are some of the things that didn't make it into the book?

[00:38:16.523] Blake Harris: I don't know, there's so much, there's so much that I find fascinating. A lot of it, there was a lot more stuff with the relationship between Oculus and Valve that didn't make the cut, or that I'm going to try to maybe reintroduce, or to add, I should say, into the next edition, just because obviously there's a level of collaboration there that you're curious about, and like you said, you know, the book provides some more context for that. But what I found most fascinating was just the impact on the employees, especially at Oculus, where you have the room which was designed by Otman Vinstok and Michael Abrash and the team at Valve and that ends up being installed at Oculus and is used as a big selling point because that was how Brendan as the CEO thought he'd be able to best raise money and to push the industry forward and in the end I would say that he was actually correct. That was a demo they showed to Mark Zuckerberg, it was a demo they showed to the folks from Andreessen Hurwitz that I know was impressive to all those parties but at the same time you're dealing with the human emotions of an outside company being lauded by your CEO. And a lot of cases people felt like what they were doing at Oculus was as good or better or could be as good as better. So, I don't know, there's a lot of emails and stuff related to that and a lot of friction at that point. And I guess I just always found that one particularly fascinating because of there's a lot of mystery around the relationship with Valve and also just because I would say almost like in the end Brendan was right, but it hurt a lot of feelings and maybe changed the trajectory of the company a bit.

[00:39:43.223] Kent Bye: Well, one of the things that I noticed in the book was all these different polarities between open versus closed, people using their gut intuitions versus their rationality, engineering pragmatism versus the marketing and telling the story. There's all these dialectics that you have, like this whole team effort that you really need. the open source ethos of the pragmatism of the engineering, but you also need to be able to tell the story. And so to see how that came together with the Kickstarter. But the thing that I found the most interesting was how that shifted and changed once they got acquired by Facebook, where there was a lot of things that Oculus wanted, that openness that they were trying to cultivate with this open ecosystem was starting to really get locked down into more of these closed platform strategies. So I'm wondering if you could talk a little bit about how you saw that story of this open ecosystem cultivation that Oculus wanted to do and how that got locked down once Facebook really wanted to push forward their platform strategy.

[00:40:41.377] Blake Harris: Sure. So, you know, the open versus closed discussion was something that stretched back to as early as like early 2013, beginning of DK one days or, you know, getting SDK out. But it's interesting, you know, the way that I would say that Brendan or even Nate Mitchell were more on the side of closed versus Palmer Luckey and Nirav Patel were more on the side of open. But at the end of the day, they really weren't all that far apart, especially when you compare that to where they would end up at Facebook, which was much more of a lockdown closed platform and Mark explicitly telling them that, you know, one of my favorite lines was the one where he says, you know, he values their opinions, but he's not going to change his mind just because they care a lot. And they did care a lot because they felt like that was core to the company. They felt like that was important to the community to have this open ethos. And, uh, Facebook definitely wanted to lock down the platform a lot more. It's described at length in Chapter 39 of the book, but I would say if Zuckerberg had his way, it would be a system where you couldn't even use Steam or have any other stores. on your Rift, and it's kind of interesting because, or I'd say it's important because as we move from PC VR to standalone, I think that Facebook's gonna have more and more, you know, more and more of what Mark was talking about there, what Facebook seems to want is gonna be what ends up happening, because they're not dealing with any other systems or platforms or OSs, they're not dealing with Windows, they don't really need to get better covered and not have Steam on Go or on Quest or anything like that. So I'm gonna be following that very closely to see how open they are and it was also interesting for me knowing that that was going on and basically you have all these early Oculus members and founders really pushing back on Mark and Facebook and trying to come up with in the end they came up with a sort of compromise with the unknown sources solution where It was technically not open, but as Brendan called it, it was mostly open because you were at least able, at the end of the day, by just clicking on known sources, you were able to do whatever you want. And so I knew how hard they fought to get that resolution. But in the community, it was not very well received. Oculus was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as the closed platform. And so it was interesting to me to see how much energy they exerted and how much they cared about this. And even for those efforts, they didn't seem to be rewarded. And again, I don't know if that's right or wrong, but I just remember at the time thinking that that was really interesting to me.

[00:43:00.782] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I think that they're still trying to figure out the business model that's going to really sustain and grow this medium. And I think everybody's really trying to figure it out. I think the owning the platform and being able to own the store has typically been what most of the people have been able to do. But it was surprising to me to hear that they were actually trying to be able to have more compatibility with the HTC Vive and that there was trying to actually, from the inside, build more tools like that. It didn't seem like that that ever went anywhere, but that was news to me that they were actually working on that.

[00:43:31.350] Blake Harris: Well, I think that because Palmer was so heavily involved in that, as well as Jason Rubin, but I think that the news with Palmer and the donation to Nipple America really derailed that whole thing. surprisingly. But I think also one thing I noticed is because you know a lot of times we say Oculus did this or we think of Oculus in a certain way but it obviously we know that there's a lot of cooks in that kitchen and it is a spectrum of people or you know a bunch of different people with a spectrum of different opinions and so even when they're trying to figure out what to do with the DRM and the revive you know basically how they block revive and you see even just within this small group of Votman and Nate and Brendan and Palmer and Nirav, like, you know, such different opinions and different approaches. And I guess in some ways you would say that's a red flag that, you know, you have these core people that aren't on the same page. And obviously having some difference of opinion is usually a good thing. But philosophically, when you're sort of, it always reminded me of that commercial, I think it's Discover commercial, where they're talking about fraud insurance and fraud insurance, and the people are saying different things, but they say, I think we're saying the same thing. And I thought a lot of times, especially looking at the emails, people were saying very different things. But just for the ease of not wanting to have conflict, they seemed to come to an agreement, even though nothing was actually agreed upon and the conversations were left as sticky as they started. And that was something I liked in particular about John Carmack's email that they published on UploadVR. Oh, actually, I don't think it was in that email. It was a different one that I liked, where he talked about how he felt that the executives were not having meaningful conversations over Email because people didn't want to put into writing their opinions and basically commit to things and just looking at from the emails that does seem to be the case that it was always like just kind of kicking the can down the road like. That's a problem we'll deal with later on. And I think that the fact that the conversation that we're talking about, like the sort of, you know, somewhat of a showdown between Zuckerberg and the Oculus team, or at least, you know, difference of opinion and coming to an agreement that happened in February at the end of the resolution was reached at the end of February. of science fiction.

[00:45:49.825] Kent Bye: You know, it reminds me of when Nate Mitchell was doing a revamp of the Kickstarter and really trying to tell the story of virtual reality. They were trying to come up with the right marketing messages to really sell what this hardware that Palmer had put together. And that I feel like that, to some extent, the role of science fiction of both Snow Crash and Ready Player One and Neuromancer, these different pieces that have inspired so many of the different engineers, that they're trying to actually create the visions that have been put forth in these stories, but actually go from that ideal vision of what's possible, and actually pragmatically make it possible. And for me, it's super uncanny to see what Ernest Cline was able to do with Ready Player One, and to see how fast of a feedback loop cycle there was between the vision that he had imagined and then how that essentially became a roadmap for what was about to unfold, including the Facebook becoming the IOI of the villain in that book to actually try to own the metaverse. But I'm just curious if you could comment on what you see as this role of science fiction in the unfolding of this story.

[00:46:53.083] Blake Harris: Sure, and this probably is taking us to somewhat of a circular place, a good place to end on in the sense that, you know, I should also mention Ernest Cline wrote the foreword to my book, so disclaimer there. And also, I would not have written my book if not for reading Ready Player One. It's one of my favorite books of all time, and one of the things I love about it, it's not the pop culture references, it was how accessible he made this world. And I did like that my reading of it was that it was not so much a dystopia or utopia, it felt more like what might actually happen without trying to make too many value judgments. But to your point, I noticed I did hundreds of interviews and must've spoke with over a hundred people and so many of them mentioned Ready Player One as a big inspiration for them wanting to join Oculus or feeling like now was the time or feeling like this was a greater mission. So the fact that that inspired them was significant. It's interesting what you said about sort of like that feedback loop and almost like it becoming a roadmap because I definitely agree. Like I remember A few times I would ask Palmer questions about the locomotion in Ready Player One, or maybe how that wasn't fully described, and I was like, oh, how did they do this? And Palmer would tell me what he remembered, and he's like, but remember, that's not a roadmap, that was a book, that was a work of fiction. But I did almost find myself thinking about, oh yeah, this is what you guys would need to do next, or here's what you must have been thinking at the time. And I do think that because it was such a pop cultural phenomenon that spoke to so many of them, it did feel a bit like a roadmap. But at the same time, it also gets, and the reason I said kind of good full circle thing is like, I think it's a good example of linear storytelling, the power of linear storytelling, sort of the inspirational value or the vicarious value, and that being like this inspiration for these people. And it, you know, as we know, one of the big challenges with virtual reality in terms of marketing or in terms of just evangelizing it, is it's for the matrix, you know, you have to see it for yourself. And so when you have the ability to sort of shorthand explain what you're doing via a piece of fiction, whether it's The Matrix or whether it's Ready Player One, in terms of what you're talking about with Nate Mitchell trying to figure out how to, like, what's the language to speak to the average or whatever the audience is going to be, I think that it's not always so much that it was a roadmap as it was just like a cultural touchstone that could be used for discussion. Yeah.

[00:49:14.644] Kent Bye: Great. And finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of virtual reality is and what it might be able to enable?

[00:49:22.456] Blake Harris: I don't know. What do you mean by that?

[00:49:28.547] Kent Bye: And what do you mean by that? Well, I've asked over a thousand people what they think the ultimate potential of VR is just to see. It's another way of saying where you see all this going. Like, what do you think where the end game is and what the final goal of what VR is going to be able to tell us about what it means to be human?

[00:49:46.480] Blake Harris: Oh, OK. It's a good question, but you've asked a thousand people. So you already know it's a good question. I mean, I think I was definitely lured into this book, and it definitely worked on me, this idea of like, anytime, anywhere, anyplace. And so the idea of being able to do anything and get the world that you envision or that you think that you envision is what appeals to me. I'm also pretty interested in the idea of like what happens when that's so easily done. You know, almost like that adage of like, be careful what you wish for, which maybe sounds more sinister, ominous. But I like that idea of anyone from any walk of life being able to have any experience. That's a large part of what appealed to me. And I think that at heart, I'm an idealist and a bit of a romantic. So that's the part that I focus on. And maybe Facebook's acquisition of Oculus has caused me to focus a little more on some of the potential darker avenues that we might go down. But I'm still a big believer and very excited about the future of virtual reality.

[00:50:46.712] Kent Bye: Cool. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the immersive community?

[00:50:51.636] Blake Harris: Just thank you. Thank you to you for having me on. And I think that the community is mentioned at various points throughout the book. It was something that the people at Oculus thought about, constantly cared about. And, you know, we wouldn't be where we are without the community, which is not just like a hyperbolic thing to say. I mean, the whole point was to get dev kits to the community of interested people to do interesting things. It's been really nice to meet a lot of people from the community over the years and overall taking a step back and just thinking about how all this has happened in a span of only seven or eight years. So I think it's very, very impressive.

[00:51:27.477] Kent Bye: Well, Blake, I just wanted to thank you for spending the last four or five years of your life putting this story together. I think it's valuable to see a lot of things in terms of what is the narrative, the story of how this all came about. And for me, I think this certainly captures a huge turning point of the evolution of VR. You're able to not only talk about a lot of the technology and the evolution and these key moments that happen over the course of that, but through the lens of these different individuals and these different characters. You know, I think there's interesting parts of each of them. Each of them have their own flaws, and I think they each have their own controversies that I think that are larger than what you were trying to achieve in this book, and that we can debate forever around all these different issues. But what you were able to at least achieve of being able to wrap this story that's a very complicated story into something that's a very compelling narrative. I just want to thank you for doing that, to taking that time to do that, and to creating something that's such an enjoyable read to have this first draft of history of virtual reality. So thank you. Thanks.

[00:52:24.604] Blake Harris: And also one more message to you as well as as the community that because I feel like I'm very fortunate to get to have done what you just described and it was exhausting and tough, but I love pretty much every moment of it. I'm happy to answer questions at any time, usually on Twitter, or my email's pretty easy to find. If people have questions, I almost always get back to them within a day. So whether it's you, whether you want to have me back on again, whether you just have quick questions, I sometimes get a little backed up, but I will almost always answer them because I think that this stuff's important and fun, and I want people to get the answers that they are curious about.

[00:52:58.313] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. So that was Blake Harris. He's the author of History of the Future, which was just launched on February 19th, 2019. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, Well, I think it's a super compelling story and narrative that Blake has been able to put together. And I think overall, he's been able to get probably most of the story right. But just by the nature of his method, I think it's just literally impossible for him to take all these multitudes of different perspectives and try to synthesize it into a singular narrative. I think all these events did happen, but from my perspective, there's always going to be different variations and different perspectives. And so what I'm going to be really focused on in the Voices of VR podcast is to provide that alternative outlet for people to be able to talk about this, to be able to share some of their insights and perspectives, and to capture more of those oral histories. I do think that that narrative is very important. It's essentially the structure of the hero's journey. But I think that whole structure of the hero's journey, in my mind, propagates a false myth that you can be completely isolated and be this lone genius able to do all these different things. I just think there's a complimentary yin archetypal journey, which is much harder to tell, but it's much more about the ego disillusionment and serving the larger purpose. There's a whole layer of what is happening from the academic community and their interface into what led up to this point. that it's very difficult to tell that story, but from my perspective of covering the academic community, I know how difficult it is, especially when things aren't cited in different ways. So, you know, just in the course of this book, there aren't very many footnotes citing back to a lot of the different aspects of where things came from an academic perspective. There's a lot of things from the pop news media, but even the news media is not citing back where a lot of these things came from academia. And I think there's just a lot of the story that is left untold as to what exactly happened between USC ICT and the mixed reality lab and Mark Bolas and what aspects of the Oculus Rift were coming from that lab versus what Palmer Luckey did. I think that, unfortunately, there seems to be a variety of different NDAs that might have been signed. I don't know, but it seems to be difficult to really get to the bottom of this story. And I'd want to specifically critique Facebook on this point. Like Facebook, if you don't have anything to hide, then why do you have employees sign non-disparaging agreements as also NDAs? There's a certain aspect of this singular grand narrative that as a company that Facebook tries to control, and they try to control it by having all of different developers within the ecosystem sign these NDAs. They have their employees sign NDAs when employees leave. They have to sign non-disparagement agreements. They can't talk about things. They have to sign NDAs. So if we're trying to get to the other side of the story, a lot of these people that actually have those with their respectives have been shut down from actually speaking the truth. And I think that, to me, is one of the most egregious ways of trying to walk down and control the history in different ways. So I would just love to be able to be able to talk to anybody at Facebook about anything at any moment. But obviously, because they're a publicly traded company, the risks that are involved there are too high, especially because there's a lot of laws and in terms of what can be disclosed. And, you know, there's all sorts of issues that whenever you're talking as a representative from a publicly traded company, there's different impacts that can have on the stock. And then once you start to have former employees, then there's an incentive to protect that stock by not having people talk bad about things, which essentially leaves that whenever there's a disagreement, you can't talk about it because there's nobody that can actually have an authentic, honest conversation about it because the people who would be able to tell you that story have had, for one reason or another, be compelled to sign these non-disclosure agreements. So for me, that's the thing that as a historian, that's the most frustrating thing, because either you are dealing with a silence and a non-response of people not willing to go on the record to talk about these things, or the people who could have been silenced through one of these NDAs or non-disparagement agreements. And, you know, for me, I personally am not a supporter of Trump. I think that there's so many communities within Reddit that exhibit toxic behavior. I think it's not controversial to say that the Donald subreddit was exhibiting various levels of toxicity leading up to the election. So I think there's a whole baggage that's associated around the associations with Palmer Lucky because of all of that as well as deliberately being involved with something that came from that subreddit has all these negative associations. However, I will say that based upon what was being reported in the book was what essentially seems to be like Palmer gave $10,000 to this group that came out of the Donald. they were able to maybe publish one billboard. And then there was a whole exchange that happened where there's a sort of questionable ethical journalistic aspect of the Daily Beast that Milo had passed off Palmer's name to the journalist under the understanding that there wouldn't be any disclosure and that it was Off of the record and so when Palmer entered that conversation, he didn't immediately say that everything I was saying is off the record So then the journalist basically said okay all this conversation was on the record So there's a bit of a back-and-forth there that Palmer's involvement with that wasn't even supposed to be public and then it got reported and then from there there was a bit of a somebody reading the article and then extrapolating what that meant based upon all these relationships of what they thought Trump meant what they thought and these different aspects of these different communities, what these memes meant, and then it sort of snowballed into this whole story. And at the time, Palmer was pretty much locked down and not being able to respond to any of that. I think in a lot of ways, not being able to respond in real time is what did the most damage. But essentially, there seemed to be this insurmountable PR disaster that happened, both in the public eye, but also internally within Facebook, that they kind of pushed Palmer out. And as much as you disagree with all the sort of varieties of the politics, When you read what happened between Palmer and Facebook, it's pretty remarkable in terms of if what is being reported as being accurate in terms of there was a statement that was denying that Palmer was supporting Trump at all. And his lawyers actually got it changed so that they could actually take that out because he's like, that's illegal. You can't tell me that I have a very specific political point of view. So anyway, there is this whole way that that went down. Ethically, it just felt like a huge abuse of power from Facebook. So for me, it's not necessarily even the most interesting thing about the book. It's probably just the most controversial because that's the thing that Facebook just doesn't want to talk about it. And the way that laws are written, there's certain standard practices that pretty much anytime anybody gets fired from any company, like the company actually can't really talk about it for all sorts of various different legal reasons. But at the same time, the circumstances around this specific scenario seems to be pretty extreme. And I think they sort of explore that in a different book. So I'm not necessarily interested in getting a final answer on that. For me, what I'm more interested in is, why do you have all these people signed in DAs? Like, why don't you let Palmer just talk about it so that you could have him share his side of the story? But I already talked about why I suspect that. That's the case. I think there's things that they just don't want out there. And so because of that they walk down these different aspects of secrecy For me moving forward. I would love to just have access to anybody anytime that wants to Talk about the history of er from whatever they want to talk about. I know there's going to be different aspects of the book that are not going to be representative of everybody's perspective, it seemed pretty clear that Palmer had access to be able to tell his side of the story throughout the entire book. It seemed to me from my impression to talking to Blake was that it kind of depended on each employee and it was up to their own decision as to the degree to which they're going to be willing to participate in talking to Blake. and that there seem to be more people that talk to Blake than other people. So for all those people who didn't talk to Blake, then I'd love to either talk to you or talk to other people that are in your sphere to be able to get other sides and other perspectives. And in particular, there seem to be a number of different things about Brendan Irby that seem to be like, wow, that's pretty egregious. Like what does Brendan have to say about this specific perspective? It seemed to be at some point that was not giving the full perspective. And also just that this whole story was a combination of this engineering pragmatism of trying to actually solve a lot of really difficult technical problems, but also like entrepreneurial market opportunities and business and marketing and storytelling and this combination of empowering an ecosystem and to have this feedback loop cycle of getting access to this technology into the hands of developers and then cultivating all of this excitement for the entire VR industry to be able to make it where it is today. I really think that it kind of required that capital infusion to do this shift. There's actually a lecture at IEEE VR by Henry Fuchs on a few days after Facebook purchased Oculus. And he was saying like, why didn't this come from the academic community? And things are very project based, but also you are very focused on publishing and they're kind of reductively looking at individual things that can be publishable. And so you tend to break things down into component parts, but in order to actually run a business, you have to create a holistic product that actually is solving very specific business needs. And so there just wasn't a market opportunity where people saw that it was going to go beyond what the existing kind of military Enterprise level applications were and so you had these headsets that were just completely overpriced huge margins and that there was nobody that was really taking that market opportunity to just undercut and have something that was so cheaply available and I think when Oculus came in there was just this need in the overall Ecosystem with all these enterprise clients and everything else to be like, oh my god This is way better than what we have from this enterprise clients, but there also is just more democratized and available So for me, it was interesting to see this dialectic between who wanted to close a platform and own it, which tended, my impression, to be more Brendan and Nate, and who wanted to be more open, which is probably more Michael Antonoff and Palmer. And I'm sure there's various different people that could say whether or not they were on which side on different specific things. But that once that Facebook came into the picture, it was pretty clear that it was like the entire company of Oculus that were pushing for more openness. And then more and more that openness was being locked down and closed down in different ways. To the point where now with Oculus Quest coming out, it's probably going to be the most locked down VR platform that's out there. At the same time, you have this dialectic between closed and open, where you have something like the iPhone, where the iPhone can have a unified user experience that is controlled from all different dimensions of the hardware and software, and that something like the Android is more difficult to have that consistency of the user experience, it tends to be a little bit more fragmented. And so there does seem to be a dialectic between these closed and open. And so maybe Facebook will come out with that closed option. But I think in the PC VR and the Vive, there's still a lot of value of having VR as an open platform. And I think that OpenXR has been pushing forth a lot of that, trying to get things to stay open. But one of my concerns is the degree to which that if the quest does take off, then how much is Facebook going to be trying to just own the platform and own the whole medium of virtual reality? And I think that's like probably the biggest risk and the thing that I worry about. So like I said, I'm skeptical of grand narrative theory. I think Blake agrees with that. But I think just the nature of narrative storytelling tends to fall into that. And I think that podcasting medium and having the full context and eventually, I think the virtual reality medium is going to be able to find new ways of exploring complexity that even goes beyond what even the podcasting medium can do. Because I have hundreds and hundreds of podcasts, but it's really difficult to navigate all of that complexity and that nuance. And I do think that there's going to be a lot of innovations that come with the virtual reality medium that is going to allow us to really have way more complexity than they've been able to handle before. with thinking things beyond just these linear stories and then more into these cycles. And I actually think that this is reflected in how the academic community often gets written out of the official histories is because there is this dialectic between that hero's journey of the individuation process versus the ego disillusionment process of that community service that tends to have a currency of those citations because you're contributing to a larger pool of knowledge. and in the absence of those citations and the credit, then that's basically the yen currency of the academic community. In the absence of that, then it's kind of like not honoring where all of this had originally come from. And just a final pin on that is that Palmer himself tends to be a little bit more conservative or libertarian, and he has modified all of this technology. He's a modder. That's something that when I had a conversation with him at Silicon Valley Virtual Reality Conference, he's taking existing things and modding them. And so a lot of the key innovations and learning that he had were coming from these internet forums, learning from the internet, and taking these existing systems and modifying them to be able to suit what he wanted to do. And so there's all this existing technology that was out there that he was kind of remixing and putting it all together in a new way, but that was coming from an existing ecosystem of things that were already there. So yes, he was putting together a lot of these headsets on his own, but he didn't create a lot of these things from scratch and he didn't invent all these things out of nowhere. They're coming from somewhere and they're coming from a larger ecosystem, which is part of the reason why I'm against this kind of mythology of trying to cast people as these lone wolf geniuses in the absence of looking at the ecosystem dynamics. And in the mathematics community, there's this debate as to whether or not these ideas and concepts, whether or not they're invented or discovered. And it's basically plays out in the philosophy of math, are these concepts and ideas? Are they created by an individual? Or are they discovered as something that's already there? And I tend to be more of a Platonist in that way that I think that a lot of these concepts and ideas are there and that they're shared within the context and that it does take that entrepreneurial spirit and ability to see the possibilities there and have the engineering pragmatism to actually make it happen, but it actually takes both. You have to have both the idea and the sci-fi imagination and the knowledge that's there, and then also the aptitude to actually technically pull it off. And I think that Palmer certainly had the aptitude to pull it off, but a lot of the inspiration and the ideas didn't come from him. They're coming from a larger community. So that's all that I have for today. And I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener supported podcast, and I do rely upon your donations in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash Voices of VR. Thanks for listening.

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