For making virtual reality a reality.
When Facebook bought virtual-reality company Oculus VR in March for a head-spinning $2 billion, some people were confused. Didn't everyone give up on expensive, complicated VR technology back in the 2000s? Not Oculus founder Palmer Luckey: In 2009, as a 17-year-old garage tinkerer, he started working on a system that would eventually run so smoothly, it might now finally fulfill VR's potential. So far, the Oculus Rift headset is only available as a developer's kit, but Facebook's backing will likely ramp things up. Luckey explains how he came up with his game-changing creation.
As a kid in Long Beach, California, Luckey loved "learning about electronics, engineering, how the world ticks," he says. After experimenting with game-console modifications and high-voltage toys like Tesla coils, he started playing with old VR equipment he bought online and at auctions. Intrigued, he decided to create his own device.
After a brief stint at the University of Southern California's virtual-reality-focused Institute for Creative Technologies, Luckey left to pursue his own VR system full time. He continued developing prototypes using cell-phone parts, and he posted all of his work in online 3-D forums. That openness turned out to be key: In early 2012, Doom cocreator John Carmack saw the plans and asked to buy a prototype. "I gave it to him for free just because he's an awesome person," says Luckey. Carmack then used the Rift headset for a Doom 3 demo at E3 in 2012, which really got the press's attention.
After E3, Luckey spent the summer prepping a Kickstarter campaign. He also showed his headset to game developers, including Valve's Gabe Newell and Mike Abrash. Not only did they appear in the Kickstarter video, but they also agreed to develop Rift-compatible VR modes for Team Fortress 2 and other games.
The 2012 Kickstarter campaign raised $2.4 million, and 60,000 kits have since been shipped. A fully built consumer version of the Rift is the next step, which will pit Oculus against Sony and several other companies that are said to be working on their own VR systems. But Rift has a head start, with a small army of outside developers building support for it into their products. "Community is what makes any technology successful," says Luckey. "If you don't have a bunch of people helping you, you have to work a lot harder to succeed."
Facebook's megabucks acquisition of Oculus is the technology's biggest endorsement yet. Why the giant price tag? To Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the technology is about much more than gaming. "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home," he wrote on Facebook after the announcement. "This is really a new communication platform."
[Illustration by Eric Frommelt]