ost other 24-year-olds would kill to be in Palmer Luckey’s shoes. Once a teenage prodigy, at 21 he was set for life, when Facebook bought the company he started in his parents’ California garage. Now, with an estimated $700m (£540m) fortune, Luckey is living the archetype of the American dream.
And yet, he spends much of his time not in this world, but in a simulation, with a black headset covering his face and a set of high-fidelity headphones around his ears. One moment Luckey may be locked in an outer-space dogfight, the next in a prehistoric fight for survival.
But then, it is his day job. Luckey is the inventor of the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that went on sale in the UK this week. At a shopping centre demo near you, curious members of the public will be lining up to strap on the Rift’s futuristic-looking black goggles, plug in a gamepad and be instantly teleported to a different universe.
Above picture: Palmer Luckey demonstrates Eagle Flight.
It’s a situation that has been a long time coming. Virtual reality has been seen as the next leap in entertainment for decades. Several false dawns have come and gone, most famously in the 1990s when Sega and Nintendo’s projects quickly flopped due to the inescapable motion sickness they caused.
But technology has moved on, and analysts believe virtual reality is now at a tipping point that will lead to its inevitable success in the coming years. And as the tinkerer who was building prototype VR headsets before anyone else cared, Luckey is the poster child of this movement.
In conversation, he brims with enthusiasm, and is yet to be sterilised into unloading the corporate jargon that infects so many tech founders. Luckey admits that the Oculus Rift, which requires an expensive, high-powered computer to run, will appeal mainly to a niche group of hardcore video gamers at first, and describes a future without such compromises as “the dream”.
When I ask him what the killer feature of the Rift is that puts it ahead of its competitors, he first waxes lyrical about the device’s upcoming “Touch” controllers, which have not gone on sale and don’t have a release date, a digression that prompts a quick counter-steer from the Oculus PR.
But Luckey is relentlessly optimistic about virtual reality’s future, and the potential for the technology to become mainstream as its costs come down.
“I think right now, Rift in particular is pretty gaming focused because it requires a high end computer. As the cost comes down and the performance goes up we’ll reduce the need for that, and we’ll reach wider and wider audiences.
“It’ll probably be a few years, but it will happen in stages. There are lots of other devices that have started at high costs and come down, look at the original iPod. So it’s going to be a continuous process, computers are getting more and more powerful. Five years in the future, you’ll get a computer that powerful for $200, you can pretty reliably predict how long it’s going to be before the technology is cheap enough.”
Mark Zuckerberg, at least, is convinced. In 2014, Facebook spent $2bn on Oculus, which had previously been funded by a campaign on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter. Zuckerberg, who had seen Facebook’s stock collapse in the months after its IPO because of the company’s apparent failure to get a grip on the smartphone revolution, was determined not to let the same happen with the next computing platform, and after a brief demo of the Oculus technology, was convince that that would be virtual reality.
Now, Zuckerberg spends almost as much time talking about VR’s potential as his grand ambition to provide the world with free internet. Oculus has been able to pursue its own aims, but Luckey says being under the Facebook umbrella has allowed it to step up a gear.
“It’s not just in terms of financial resources, it’s also that Facebook has a huge talent base, they’re one of only a handful of companies that know how to serve data, so we’ve been able to lean on them.” But Luckey will be acutely aware that Facebook did not spend its billions, however plentiful they are, on a platform for video games, and that Zuckerberg expects virtual reality to be the next step for his social network. Luckey, though, says that today’s dominant internet properties – Facebook, Google, Twitter – won’t necessarily transfer.
“The things that are going to be the most compelling aren’t going to be the traditional networks, it will be those built up from the ground up, ones that can take advantage of that ability to feel in a space with a person.”
Proponents believe virtual reality will transform a range of industries. The technology is already being used in therapy to relive traumatic events and fight phobias, to train doctors and to design buildings. IDC, a tech researcher, believes that revenues from the industry will more than double each year for the next five years, growing from $5.2bn this year to $162bn in 2020.
This will undoubtedly lead to fears that real-life interaction will suffer, just as smartphones and the internet have created a generation of screen junkies, but Luckey dismisses this. “If they say its anti-social I absolutely disagree. If I want to talk to our office in Japan, or China or London, I can fly there and burn hundreds of dollars of jet fuel, or I can do it in virtual reality.
“I grew up using the internet and social media and I think VR is going to be in the same position. But if it cuts down on real life interactions, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”