If you follow the VR ‘scene’ at any length, you are sure to know the name Palmer Luckey, the man widely credited for both metaphorically and literally ‘Kickstarting’ the modern VR industry. Over the years Luckey has been involved in several controversies, from selling out to Facebook, to funding pro-Trump advertisement, however, it looks as though Luckey’s time in the spotlight may be drawing to an end, as he steps down from his Oculus/Facebook position, truly handing power over to Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg.
Facebook broke the news last week that Luckey had left the company, yet refused to disclose whether or not he had done so by choice or by force, and with the current state of Facebook VR and Oculus, I would be led to believe it was the latter (although we have no way of knowing). Mark Zuckerberg has already made public some of his disappointments with how Oculus was doing, admitting that Facebook VR was “behind where he would like it to be” as well as the fact that Oculus sales “Won’t be profitable for quite a while”. And he made his dissatisfaction clear some months ago with the hiring of Xiaomi’s Hugo Barra (formerly VP of Android at Google). Barra has worked as an executive for Xiaomi and seen the company rise, from poor ‘Chinese’ manufacturing to eastern mobile giants, even competing with the likes of Vivo and Meizu in China (and Samsung in India). In the space of 4 years Xiaomi have come from producing their first ‘Redmi’ device to creating one of the most premium consumer phones on the market (Xiaomi Mi Mix), are one of the first Chinese mobile companies to start developing in-house SoC (Xiaomi Surge S1) and hold the record for the fastest selling phone, with the Redmi Note 4 selling 250,000 units within 10 minutes of release. Of course, this is not necessarily down to Barra’s appointment but it is hard to ignore the impact he made on the company since arriving from Google, and Facebook will be hoping he can replicate that form for them.
With Zuckerberg appointing Barra as the Vice president of VR, this left many confused as to what exactly Palmer Luckey’s role would be at Oculus. If it was not one of over-seeing, not one of public-relations (which he had already soured twice by this point), where did he fit into Facebook’s VR ventures? Well if the current situation is of any relevance, he didn’t. After Facebook’s buyout of Oculus Luckey has, for the most part, taken a back seat to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg and John Carmack in terms of PR and this is for a few reasons. Of course, Zuckerberg is a household name, and although he may have lost the trust of the tin-foil clad populous, he is still a widely respected pioneer and helps put a face to the technology, which also helps make sure people are reminded that this is a Facebook-owned company. Beyond this, Luckey rarely did himself favours in terms of Public Relations, with his ‘The Times’ magazine front cover being mocked online, his involvement in funding of the anti-Hillary Clinton ‘organisation’ NimbleAmerica, as well as his involvements in Facebooks ‘walled-garden’ approach to VR, which has turned a lot of the VR community away from Oculus HMDs, and I feel this could be a big reason for his departure one way or another.
When Kickstarting the Oculus Rift, Luckey talked about OpenVR, a system by which all headsets can be used for any software, allowing the consumer to use whatever headset they want, without being limited by exclusivity and HMD-DRM. This standard now exists in Khronos Group’s OpenXR standard, meaning (in theory) all headsets are free to play any game made following this standard (given hardware requirements are met). However this cross-platform utopia simply is not to be, and it is Oculus at the head of it. Oculus has made a name for themselves by throwing money into VR projects for exclusivity rights, exactly the opposite of what Luckey’s hopes for VR would be, and in the same vein is not at all what consumers want, however I don’t think Oculus should feel the heat for this, as for almost all technology software is a USP and something that can add value to a product when the hardware of the competition is indistinguishable, or even sub-par/superior; this practice has kept Nintendo in business for the past 20 years, and I don’t necessarily view it as ‘anti-consumer’ as much as it is ‘pro-business’. However, although I believe Oculus don’t necessarily deserve hate for common business practice, I do believe Palmer Luckey sold his soul allowing Facebook to take this stance, and although I don’t blame him for taking such a large buyout, I also don’t disagree with those who would refer to him as a sell-out.
Of course, we (as of yet) are unaware whether Luckey left the company due to the route on which Facebook is taking Oculus, and to finally redeem himself as the VR prophet and help spread the good word once more; or whether he was fired, due to unpopular opinions and class-action lawsuits that reflect poorly on Facebook, which is a progressive company at heart; there is also a chance that it could be down to the fact that Oculus sales are poor, with the Rift selling less than both its main competitors last year (HTC Vive and PSVR) and that remained after their significant price drop. In the end I just believe Luckey was not up to the task, and although I respect his involvement in modern VR, I also understand how limited most of the technology he created is, and for the most part believe he simply isn’t up to the task of creating what will likely be the main VR platform (Facebook VR) for years to come (at least in the western market).