Palmer Luckey’s Facebook Departure, and Confronting Political Reality in a Virtual Reality Age

Oculus-Rift

I had the occasion to meet virtual reality innovator and Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey twice, and had one long conversation with him after an Oculus Rift launch games event during Game Developer’s Conference last year in 2016 (shortly before I came out as trans, and was still living in the San Francisco Bay Area, under another name). Luckey was vibrant and energetic, winning and charismatic, with a quick wit and easy charm; qualities that were matched by a surprising openness about his passion project: he was willing to discuss both the limitations of the Oculus Rift hardware, and his ambitions for its further development in future iterations.

At an event for Minecraft in VR a few days later, I got to hear Oculus Chief Technology Officer John Carmack dish about progress on headtracking in the Oculus Gear VR (the proprietary Samsung hardware and software package attached to their Galaxy line of phones). It was a heady time for VR as it approached official release dates for both The Rift and the HTC Vive headsets; it was also shortly before I’d become aware of any portent of toxic masculine tech culture that, from later disclosures, may have been a top-down part of Oculus’ development culture.

According to tweets by MidBoss founder Matt Con, at the 2016 GDC Gaming’s Gay Professionals/Gaymer X Party soon after, a man wearing an Oculus T-shirt—claiming to be from the company—drunkenly accosted women and made comments that safe spaces for minorities were unnecessary. Though Luckey tweeted back to Conn that the issue would be addressed, it was the first time I saw a public account of misbehavior or prejudice by an alleged Oculus employee.

Later in the year, Luckey was mired in scandal. A Daily Beast story revealed that he had been involved in an anti-Clinton political smear campaign by a company called Nimble America—though accounts varied as to the level of his involvement—eliciting public recriminations against the Oculus co-founder, directed at Facebook (who purchased Oculus in 2014) known for it’s its socially progressive policies. In the aftermath some studios and developers pulled out of Oculus support, a difficult proposition for the VR firm, with Sony’s Playstation VR and the HTC Vive as viable competitive platforms. The Verge reported early last month that queries about Luckey’s continued role at Oculus were met with assurances from former CEO—now head of desktop VR—Brendan Iribe, that Luckey was still working on development. Luckey’s only high profile appearance since the Daily Beast story has been in court.

Legal issues plagued the company in recent days. Early this year, Luckey was at the heart of a lawsuit by ZeniMax, filed in 2014, against Oculus on multiple accounts; including copyright infringement, and breaking a Non-Disclosure Agreement with the company.  John Carmack was a ZeniMax employee (working for subsidiary Id Software) before coming on at Oculus, and talks were ongoing between the two companies before the purchase by Facebook. The lawsuit was so wide-reaching that Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was subpoenaed to testify about the timing of the purchase. The final ruling was a half billion dollars (of $6 billion requested) in ZeniMax’s favor, with Luckey personally liable for $50 million. ZeniMax followed the ruling by announcing its intent to request an injunction against Oculus selling the Rift headsets.

At the end of March, UploadVR reported that Luckey was no longer working at Facebook. It’s hard, from an external viewpoint, to see this as an apolitical decision (whether the separation came from Luckey, or from Facebook; whose political culture may have been at odds with Luckey’s personal/political beliefs). California is an At-Will employment state, and without having any reliable internal sources, speculation on how or why Luckey has left the company are merely that, speculation.

On a purely public relations level, the fact that the media had to be assured before this announcement that Luckey was still working at Facebook, and at Oculus on development, speaks to the degree to which his reputation had been publicly tarnished by the disclosures of his political activities, and legal issues facing the company. Luckey wrote on Facebook that he merely provided seed money for Nimble America, who created the anti-Clinton memes, as a reflection of his personal Libertarian beliefs (with plans to vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson in the 2016 US Election). However, in the wake of his departure, outlets like The Guardian and Vice referred to Luckey as a decidedly pro-Trump figure, an association that has dogged him since the disclosure.

It’s personally frustrating for me to wrestle with my love of the advancement of VR, and the knowledge that Luckey’s political engagements put me at greater personal physical, social, if not eventually legal risk, as a trans woman under the Trump Administration. Luckey admitted to being financially liable for a $10,000 investment, which is a relatively small sum, but it isn’t hard for me to imagine that it was on the smaller side of his political donations to like projects. Whether or not Luckey intended to promote Trump, or simply to be a thorn in the side of “political elites” as stated in the Daily Beast article, he contributed through anti-Clinton propaganda to Trump’s win, putting me personally at greater risk. It’s especially hurtful, since my love and evangelism for VR is almost certainly enhanced by my experiences as a trans person.

I simply adore virtual reality. As a person who spent the bulk of their life feeling at odds with their body, the ability to have an experience of becoming someone else, living in other worlds and imaginative creative spaces feels incredibly powerful and salient to my personal narrative. Unlike any other immersive tech, VR has the transformative potential to take us to other worlds in an interactive way. James Cameron’s Avatar may have been the breakthrough film that showed a general populace another 3D world through a cinema screen-sized window, but VR lets you determine what parts of other worlds you wish to see or touch; that agency makes such a monumental difference, especially to those who have not had agency over their own bodies.

To say that Luckey “changed the game” in the development of VR is an understatement. Before the Oculus Rift became a kickstarter campaign, occasional VR articles in gaming and tech magazines focussed on either the lack of progress in consumer VR, or systems that were prohibitively expensive, decades-away development, or were being used for military/industry applications. Luckey was able to key-in on the the possibility of using cell-phone screens; manufactured at increasingly lower and lower cost due to a hardware war race that even today has yet to appear to develop standards of controlled growth in an era of continued demand for innovation that has bred—instead—a culture of extreme innovation whose market demands forced obsolescence (i.e. to keep up with the profit demands and R&D budgets of modern phones, it’s necessary for them to become obsolete quickly to force users to buy new products with increasing regularity).

While this rapid consumerism is bad for the environment, and creates a class structure around who can have what tech and when, the benefits are that it pushes innovation and creativity within the field. The original iPhone had a resolution of 320×440 pixels in 2007, and the Oculus Rift’s first developer kit in 2012 was using a 1280×720 seven inch screen developed by Taiwanese LCD developer InnoLux. The 3D effect of the early DK1 was palpable (early demonstrations used an offline version of Hawken that was like looking at the game-world through coke-bottle lenses) as it presented a 3D vision that wasn’t tethered to a static window like 3D movies or gaming, albeit one that appeared to have a major resolution problem, but objects appeared in space and could be viewed freely. The most impressive thing for me in that initial demo was that I could turn around and see the back of the mech cockpit—before the mech was dropped from hundreds of feet to crash to the Earth far below, eliciting an experience of gut-wrenching vertigo—but the detail of being able to see the entire virtual environment by naturally turning my head was an astounding experience.

The viability of the Oculus Rift to create a consumer VR product (Kickstarter contributors were granted their own DK1 prototype for contributing just $300—for reference, the current Oculus Rift headset and Touch controllers are packaged together with a suggested retail price of around $600) jumpstarted other consumer grade VR solutions, that have led to an explosion of VR hardware and software development. In a way, Oculus managed to ride a perfect storm of tech development, with the Nintendo Wii, and later Microsoft’s Kinect and Sony’s Move, showing that Augmented Reality gaming had a place within consumer gaming spaces, that could be a prime entry point for VR. In some respects, with its prior developments, Nintendo built the foundation on which the VR boom has been founded (the Power Glove used a primitive version of the same tech as the Wii, and Nintendo’s early Virtual Boy console gave players a taste of headache-wrenching, simple 3D gaming). That Sony and Valve would jump on the bandwagon with their own consumer products directed towards their platform specific niches, or that Google would develop it’s own cell phone VR platform, Cardboard (complete with DIY VR home construction kits) seems only natural in retrospect; but none of that would have likely happened if Palmer Luckey hadn’t built the Oculus Rift prototype in a garage at the age of 18.

Palmer Luckey’s story serves as a good reminder that innovation and creativity are not tied to any particular political ideology or set of values; but also that an industry’s cultural values are inseparable from perceived employability. Luckey’s departure is now impossible to publicly disconnect from his own political actions—even if his departure was purely apolitical and outside of political, legal, or financial considerations; voluntary or involuntary; and based entirely upon internal issues or developments between himself and other facebook/Oculus personnel—his status as a public figure embroiled in these issues all but guarantees this will be seen as a repudiation by liberal Silicon Valley: a repudiation of a political and plagiaristic betrayal of its values by one of its former rising stars.

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