Silicon Valley’s New VR Genius Feels Familiar

Silicon Valley’s New VR Genius Feels Familiar
June 1, 2017

Silicon Valley is a show that thrives on satirizing stereotypes.


For the past couple of weeks, Silicon Valley has been building up to taking on virtual realityand the entrepreneurs at the forefront of the industry’s most desired tech. A couple of episodes ago, Erlich Bachman (T.J. Miller) goes all in on an idea that one of his incubators, Jian-Yang (Jimmy O. Yang), comes up with after assuming it’s a VR app. As he so poetically says, “Any idiot could walk into a fucking room, utter the letters ‘v’ and ‘r’, and VC’s would hurl bricks of cash at them. By the time they find out it’s vaporware, it’s too late.”


Although that pitch doesn’t go the way he wants it to, Bachmann accidentally stumbles into a pitch meeting with one of the most prominent VR founders in the valley. Played by Haley Joel Osment, the similarities between this VR genius — Keenan Feldspar — and Oculus founder Palmer Luckey are obvious.


Like Luckey, Feldspar is considered one of the youngest and hottest entrepreneurs in the industry. His VR rig is rumored to be groundbreaking. Feldspar’s technology is being watched by every major VC firm, but doesn’t have a backer yet and there’s about to be a major bidding war. As Bachmann said, no one understands VR, but everyone wants in on it. Although Luckey crowdfunded his company’s headset, it had the eyes of every major company in the valley. Many consider Facebook acquiring Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion the catalyst in the VR boom, with companies like Google, Sony and HTC all prepping their own releases.

Although Silicon Valley never calls out Palmer Luckey in the same way they throw names like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates around, the assumption was picked up on by fans of the show. Most of this was based on Feldspar’s fashion. Luckey is known for his casual demeanor, described by Recode as sporting “flip-flops, cargo shorts and a flowery blue Hawaiian shirt unbuttoned halfway down his chest” during one press event. Feldspar dresses similarly and, even though the show acknowledges that Oculus exists, everything from Feldspar being the wonder kid of VR to his fashion seems to insinuate he was based on Luckey. The comparison has people asking if Feldspar was a stand-in for Luckey or just a riff on a stereotype prevalent in the valley.

Luckey beat Kobayashi at VR Tennis during Oculus’s gaming demo day.  / Kurt Wagner/Recode


Even if creator Mike Judge and his team of writers didn’t mean to specifically base their VR genius on Luckey, the way they frame the young tech outlier is spot-on. One of the reasons that Silicon Valley works as well as it does is because of the insight the team has into the actual tech world. Part of that comes from having expert consultants around, like former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, who joined the show in 2015 at the end of his time at Twitter, and part of it comes from just keeping up with what’s happening in the news.


When Osment’s Keenan Feldspar walks into the room of venture capitalists ready to throw their best pitches at him, he’s sporting a Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts and a gnarly beard. Much like Gilfoyle (Martin Starr), an engineer at Pied Piper who sports a beard and unkept hair, Feldspar’s look is in itself a satirical look at the fashion that drives the new age of Silicon Valley.


Hoodies, tees and flip-flops or sneakers have come to define the ubiquitous look of Silicon Valley and Feldspar perfectly encapsulates that. With the beard and laid back attitude that accompanies Osment’s character, Feldspar is a near-perfect satirical take on the fashion that runs rampant in the valley. Even Joe Zee, former creative director of Elle and editor-in-chief of Yahoo! Style, has pointed out how the hoodie and jeans combo — made famous by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg — has become synonymous with some of the most successful men and women in the valley today.

(L to R): Gilfoyle (Martin Starr) and Dinesh (Kumail Najiani)  / John P. Johnson/HBO


“In college you might wear sweatpants if you’re lazy, but here, if you don’t show that laziness, it’s almost suspect,” one person who lives in Silicon Valley told Zee in a feature on the industry’s fashion. “If you’re an engineer, you have to be a little bit lazy because you’re so brilliant.”


Feldspar plays into that mentality beautifully. It’s another example of Judge’s attention to detail and the aspects that make up how people in the valley work and live that have always been front and center in the show. In the first season, Hooli CEO Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) is watching employees walk across campus and has a moment of clarity about how people at companies like his — based on tech giant Google — operate.

“It’s weird, they always travel in groups of five,” Belson says in the show’s pilot. “There’s always a tall skinny white guy, a short skinny Asian guy, fat guy with a ponytail, guy with crazy facial hair and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.”


Much like that point on how clusters of people work in the valley, the introduction of Feldspar as a stereotype that they can poke fun at is a prime example of the close attention the Silicon Valley team pays to its characters and the world they live in. Feldspar is a genius whose tech speaks for itself — not unlike the awkward Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) or Gilfoyle. More specifically, not unlike Palmer Luckey.


Before the show’s fourth season kicked off, Judge spoke about how he wanted to do more with VR and AR, telling the Daily Beast that he and his team spent time researching the industry and the giants within it for the current season.


“We explored invented reality and visited some AR and VR companies, and yeah, there’s a whole new wave coming of this stuff,” Judge said. “Just the whole VR world that’s blowing up right now. We’ll explore that.”


Osment’s character should be sticking around for a couple of more episodes, meaning the VR satire won’t be disappearing anytime soon. Although his character is still relatively unknown, acting as a vessel for Bachman to get his foot in the door at a venture capital firm, more about Feldspar will be revealed in the coming weeks.


Silicon Valley airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET.

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