Having founded Oculus in 2012 and been an important face for the company throughout its growth from fledgling startup to $2 billion acquisition by Facebook and beyond, it was a shock to see Palmer Luckey leave the company just two months ago. Having shied away from the public eye since September 2016 after the ousting of a polarizing political position, Luckey has gone on record in an interview for the first time since leaving the company.
Speaking with MoguraVR during a trip to Tokushima, Japan to attend the anime event Machi Asobi, Luckey opened up in Part 1 about his personal hobby of cosplay—a freedom he didn’t have while at Facebook—the Japanese VR market, and the future of VR headsets. In Part 2, he SAYS SUMMARY.
Palmer’s Passion for VR
Palmer wears a Rift DK1, circa 2013 | Photo courtesy Oculus
MoguraVR: From where does your passion for VR come from nowadays?
Palmer Luckey: A few years have passed since I founded Oculus. I now have more passion for VR than ever before. Before Oculus was founded VR was just my hobby side project. Ever since founding Oculus I have been devoting every single day of my life towards VR. I have tried almost all the VR content & hardware and I have met devs from almost all VR studios. Over the last few years I have become more confident that VR will become mainstream. On an almost weekly basis I find content that makes me want to say: ‘VR is the future, I have to make the future of VR happen sooner.’ What I fear the most at the moment is that the speed at which VR is spreading at is not fast enough, and that people are going to lose their excitement for VR at this rate.
What motivates me right now is ‘How can we make VR more attractive for everyone’, ‘How can we speed up the popularization of VR?’ and ‘How can we help VR developers to succeed as a business?’ At the moment it is difficult for VR developers to support themselves just with developing VR content.
MoguraVR: So enthusiasm for VR is getting even bigger?
Palmer Luckey: People are more passionate than ever. Of course sometimes there are arguments about it. But that is to be expected. It now has been five years since I founded Oculus in 2012, if you had told me back then that VR is going to be this successful this fast I would have not been confident in that. I would have thought you are insane.
MoguraVR: How were the five years after funding Oculus?
Palmer Luckey: It went by really fast, I can’t even believe that it really has been five years. Every day of my life was fulfilled, looking back at it the time it really went by in a flash.
A Sci-fi World for Car Fanatics
MoguraVR: I think we should change the subject. Palmer you were influenced from the sci-fi novel Snow Crash (1992) if I recall right. Many people are thinking that as technology progresses we are getting closer to a sci-fi world, if you had to create an anime right now what would it be about? What kind of future do you imagine?
Palmer Luckey: The truth is I actually have several ideas for a sci-fi anime. It’s something I think about in my spare time but I don’t know if I ever will realize them.
One of them is about a future in which automation is commonplace. All cars are self-driving and all the work is done by computers. Humans no longer know how to drive a car and have become unable to think with their own heads. (They are relying on machines to think.) Individuality has disappeared. The only exception is a group that is rebelling against this society. They can assemble, repair, and drive their own cars. They do not use any handy technology like computers and are thinking with their own heads, they are living freely without being swallowed up by the system.
MoguraVR: Is this a dystopian future like the ones you see in The Matrix (1999) and The Terminator (1984)?
Palmer Luckey: What I want to depict is a good future. It is not a dystopia where the machines are controlling everything. But you could say that it is a bit like a dystopia. I want to show how technology that is good for society can at the same time make society lose it’s greatest strength, individuality. In opposition to this the Rebel group members are proud of their individuality and want to display it.
MoguraVR: By the way, how is VR doing in such a world?
Palmer Luckey: In this story VR does makes almost no appearances. That actually is a problem I had when writing these stories, if there is a sci-fi world in which VR has become commonplace, there would no longer be a need for cars [laughs].
MoguraVR: Haha, yes there no longer would be any need for transportation.
Palmer Luckey: Indeed, if everything is available in VR everyone would spend most of their time in VR and would only very rarely leave VR.
Sword Art Online and VR in the Zeitgeist
Sword Art Online
MoguraVR: In Sword Art Online (2012) VR is being depicted as extremely attractive.
Palmer Luckey: Really? Don’t you die in SAO [laughs]? But even though such terrible things have happened in Aincrad everyone is still playing [fictional] VR games such as Alfheim Online and Gun Gale Online.
MoguraVR: Yes, they don’t seem to learn their lesson.
Palmer Luckey: Thanks to SAO’s popularity in Japan there are now a few PC VR gamers in Japan, SAO made the concept of VR easy to understand. The US had a distorted view of view of VR because of the movie The Matrix, but that image is gradually changing. Samsung ran a VR commercial during the Super Bowl, the response of the millions of people that watched it was very positive.
MoguraVR: Is the amount of ads for VR in the USA increasing?
Palmer Luckey: It is increasing considerably. For example there was a Samsung commercial in which a ostrich wears a Gear VR that played in US cinemas.
MoguraVR: About the image of VR. While social VR exists there still are many people saying that meeting face to face is the best way to socially interact.
Palmer Luckey: [Joking] Hmm, how about that? There are also people like that.
MoguraVR: You don’t seem to think so?
Palmer Luckey: I was not raised to think in that way. I think it has something to do with age. It’s a different way of thinking. There are people that just say ‘I have sent you an email’ but young people are not like that.
I have actually never met some of my best friends. I have played an online game with him, and have only met him in VR. I have no doubt that they are my friends. My parents have raised me by saying ‘Your friends are going to become your treasure’. Those best friends that I have never met personally truly are ‘treasure’ to me. I also got to know my girlfriend through the internet, we didn’t meet for two years. Had I met her in VR (and been satisfied with that), I maybe would have never met her for real.
Palmer (left) playing Super Smash Brothers during his time in Japan | Photo courtesy MoguraVR
MoguraVR: If there are split opinions on something time will reveal the answer.
Palmer Luckey: Time truly settles issues. Especially young people who gradually develop new values will change the mainstream.
MoguraVR: That is going to take some time.
Palmer Luckey: I actually think it won’t take that long. A lot of the internet culture has been created by young people. I am sure that in ten years the people using the internet will think that meeting in VR is as good or even better than meeting in real life. Even then there surely will still be people that think that meeting face to face is the best, but in another ten years meeting in VR will advance even further. Inside of VR you can look however you want. If I could meet people in VR while looking like I weigh 25 kilo less I would of course like to meet more people in VR [laughs]. Of course generations that learn to accept technology from a young age are going to be more flexible to change their way of thinking.
Pokémon Go Obsession
MoguraVR: We previously talked about Sword Art Online, you are known for your big love of anime. The first anime you ever saw was Death Note (2007)?
Palmer Luckey: That’s right. No, if we are exact the truly first one I ever saw would have to be Pokémon (1997), Yu-Gi-Oh! (1998) or Dragon Ball (1986) which I saw as a child. Death Note was the first anime I saw as a grown up before it became popular in the west. But that is besides the point, I love anime. I also still love Pokémon.
MoguraVR: If I recall right you also play Pokémon Go (2016).
Palmer Luckey: When I first met Pokémon Go I was addicted to it. I cosplayed as Ash and went into parks all night to catch Pokémon, I then slept alone under a bridge. I haven’t played it much recently.
MoguraVR: There are some Pokémon that are exclusive to Japan, do your best to catch them!
Real & Virtual Consequences and Palmer’s Next Project
MoguraVR: When did you learn about Sword Art Online?
Palmer Luckey: Actually there is a connection to the Oculus Kickstarter. The week we launched the Kickstarter [in 2012] was actually the week when the third episode of SAO aired. The timing overlapped perfectly. I think that SAO made Oculus the focus of attention. At the same time Oculus might have made SAO even more popular by a small amount. Many people said that SAO seemed more realistic to them because of the existence of Oculus. Because Oculus’ existence VR didn’t feel like it was 20 or 30 years away. Many people thought that VR is going to become real in the near future.
During the Kickstarter I got hundreds of emails like: ‘Have you heard about the anime Sword Art Online?’, I still have people asking me that to this day [laughs]. I think over a thousand people have asked me about SAO so far.
MoguraVR: It was pushed so hard that I actually watched it. I fell in love with it, Palmer what do you love about SAO?
Palmer Luckey: [In deep thought] There are so many things I love about SAO. I think the part I liked the most was the result.
MoguraVR: The result?
Palmer Luckey: The setting of the VRMMORPG SAO was ‘If you die in-game you also die in the real world’. This setting became obvious right after the launch of SAO. This is a very extreme result. If a player makes the wrong decision he will have the result of his death. This is different to a normal game where you just shoot stuff, and it does not matter when you die because you can just respawn countless times.
Right after hearing the concept of SAO I was drawn to it. Even now after several years I am thinking about the concept of a game in which you have the same serious results in the real world as in the game world. It is going to cause a ‘real result’ which makes the game ‘real’. It is a game in which no mistake is allowed, you have to seriously think about everything.
MoguraVR: I see…
Palmer Luckey: [laughs] Do I sound like Kayaba Akihiko? [Akihiko is the villain of SAO who make the stakes life-or-death for the VR players]
MoguraVR: Are you trying to say you want to be like him?
Palmer Luckey: Just a little, just a tiny bit. I can understand what he was thinking. Kayaba created a game with a ‘serious result’ and wanted to see what would come of it. This is something no one has done so far in the real world.
MoguraVR: Why are you so interested in ‘a serious result’? Do you want to know how humans will react put into such a situation?
Palmer Luckey: That’s exactly it. In the real world everyone is making careful judgments. Because you do not want to die in a car crash you drive your car carefully. No one would drive a car in such a way in a game. But what if there were a game in which when you would make a mistake within, it would have a big gameplay impact. This factor would change the way you play the game a lot and would make it feel a lot closer to reality.
I think human beings want to live in a society that is careful. You would not want to live in a world without careful people. It would be a free but crazy world. In the movie The Matrix agent Smith says ‘The machine is trying to build the perfect world for humans.’ This Line is based on the idea that human beings need conflict and cannot obtain happiness without experiencing pain. Thus in the movie the machines create a world that continues to let humans experience pain.
I am not as insane as Smith [laughs], but I do think those words contain a bit of truth. I don’t think I want to live in a world in which humans control everything, without any serious results.
This concept of “serious results” is part of one of the projects I am working on. But I won’t talk about any details.
MoguraVR: If such a game existed would there be anyone who would want to play it?
Palmer Luckey: I think there would be people who would want to. Of course I don’t want to create a game in which players die in real life if they die in-game [laughs]. I think for something like this to become popular it must be something between current games and SAO.
MoguraVR: Your next project sounds very intriguing.
Palmer Luckey: It still is very early, so I can’t tell you any details, but it certainly will be exciting.