Palmer Luckey, the the man behind Oculus virtual reality goggles, is shockingly young. He may be responsible for one of the current hottest things in tech, but he's just 21. And he says the kind of things people that age say when they're bold enough to dream out loud.
"If we can have perfect VR—if we can make a virtual world that is as satisfying and compelling as the real one—then I do think it will become one of the most important technologies in the history of man."
He told me that last month, when I met him in Las Vegas during a gaming convention.
As the Game Developers Conference starts this week in San Francisco, Luckey might well be seen as the prophet of virtual reality; he's the reason the technology has an early lead on being the buzz topic of the show.
The latest prototype of the Oculus headset will be at GDC, as will an increasing number of games built for it—games like Eve Valkyrie, a sci-fi combat game that appears to put you in the cockpit of a starship.
It's not just Oculus that could make this week huge for VR. The hot rumor is that Sony will unveil long-in-development virtual reality tech of its own for the PlayStation 4 in a session about the future of PlayStation on Tuesday afternoon (Sony's mum on that, of course).
If this is indeed VR's biggest week yet, it's thanks to Luckey, who is practically still a kid—a kid who has mostly stayed out of the spotlight and yet whose passion for VR is the reason that so many gamers finally get to immerse themselves in virtual worlds like never before.
A Teenager's Dreams
Luckey's been wanting a world with real virtual reality in it since he was even younger, back when he really was a kid. It was seemingly everywhere, he remembered. Everywhere but in real life. It was on Star Trek, and in Digimon. It was in The Matrix and Yu-Gi-Oh. Somewhere along the line, he started wanting it in his life.
He grew up near Long Beach, California, the eldest of four siblings, home-schooled since pre-K. "I was a terrible child," Luckey told me in Vegas, as he sat on a couch in a hotel where the latest version of the Oculus, the Crystal Cove, was being shown to game developers and reporters. He was barefoot and sat crossed-legged, in jeans and a dress-shirt. "I think they're calling it ADD these days. I was just a rambunctious kid."
He studied at home, educated by his parents and tutors. He fell in love with engineering at a very early age and credits the home-schooling with letting him focus.
He was taking community college courses by 15, he told me, trying to get his degree as early as possible. He was smart. And he wanted to climb life's ladder fast. He was into engineering but recalls that he wanted to be a reporter, because, in the arrogance of his youth, he assumed he knew everything about engineering.
He was a builder and a tinkerer. He got into the portabilizing movement popularized by modder Ben Heck, who would turn old home consoles into handheld devices. He ran a forum called Mod Retro. He got a gig working in the U.S. army's virtual reality lab in Playa Vista California when he was about 17 or 18. He did that while juggling college courses.
Luckey also got into games. He played a ton of Team Fortress 2 and Fallout 3 and kept acquiring bigger monitors. And 3D monitors. And rigging multiple monitor set-ups. "I was trying to build the most immersive gaming setup possible," he explains. "It was kind of an obsession, beyond just 'I want to get better graphics.' It was: 'How can I get something that is as close to real life as possible?' And that's kind of what got me started looking hard at VR. I had thought it would be a cool thing, but I was now thinking I've got to figure this out. It's the next step for my gaming rig is to go buy virtual reality hardware."
He assumed VR was already a thing in our world and not just some sci-fi fantasy that showed up throughout pop culture. "As a kid and as a teenager you kind of think, 'Oh, VR exists, it's just in the military's secrets labs for hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars and is not something I can get.' But, as I started to get older and learn about the technology and started buying a lot of this VR equipment that was on the market or used to be on the market, I realized that it was actually really primitive compared to what I hoped it would be."
Unsatisfied with the VR technology he was finding, Luckey started tinkering. He tracked down old virtual reality gear and tried to make it better. "I wanted to see if I could cut it up, put it together with modern parts and see how good it could be," he says. "It turned out the approaches they were using were completely doomed from the start. They were using complex heavy optics to try and do all of the distortion correction. They were using very small micro-displays that were hard to get a wide field of view out of. And that was when I said, alright, I'm going to have to figure out how I can start from scratch if I'm going to make anything."
Luckey was a teenager through all of this, but that didn't keep him from figuring out how to make some entrepreneurial cash. "A lot of the money I made to fund my VR stuff was buying tons of broken iPhones on eBay, unlocking them and re-selling them."
As he worked, he posted information about his VR work online. And he drew the attention of one of the most famous and respected computer programmers of all time.
"I had been posting all of my work online," Luckey says. "It hadn't really attracted any attention until [DOOM co-creator] John Carmack showed it at E3, and then everyone was paying attention." Carmack loved the early Oculus tech and, back in 2012, was indeed showing it off, with Doom 3 running on it, at E3 of that year. He sang Luckey's praises and, two years later, went to work for him.
The moment Carmack started showing off Luckey's work, Luckey quit school. So much for college and a planned major in journalism. He'd been planning to make a full-time living as a tech reporter, one who actually understood tech. But then? He saw his moment. He saw VR's moment, so he dropped out. "I said, 'I can always go back to school, but opportunities like this don't come along very often and if I don't give this everything I've got right now I'm going to regret it later.'"
He was 19.
It really was a terrific time for him to start his own virtual reality company. In August of that year he did a Kickstarter and asked people for $250,000. They gave him $2.4 million.
Reasons For Making Lasers
If you want to get a sense of the man, here's a classic exchange we had the day we met.
"I love lasers," he says.
"What do you do with lasers?" I ask.
"Nothing of use. It's fun to build lasers."
"And just shoot them at things?"
"Where have you aimed your lasers?"
"Definitely not the sky. If you were to aim them at the sky, you have to make sure there are no planes going across. Luckily that's all public information and you can figure out what are safe points to aim it at in the night sky. But also for burning stuff. For me it wasn't about what you do with it in the end. It was about building an entire system out of different components, figuring out the optical system, the cooling system, the power supply, mounting it all. It's very fun building something with a lot of unique technologies in it."
"After you make one laser, what's the motivation to make a second laser?"
"Make a more powerful laser. I started out with diode-based lasers, which are pretty easy. Then moved on to gas lasers which are a lot more complex to make and build and cool and keep running."
"Are they more powerful? Can lasers burn lots of stuff?"
"A lot of them can. I built an infrared gas laser, but I've stopped using infrared, because I think they're too dangerous for me as a hobbyist. They're too dangerous because you can't see the beam and you never know when you're being safe or not. But some gas lasers allow you to do exotic frequencies. Like, argon lasers have this beautiful blue beam... Recently, there are laser diodes that are 520 nanometers that look kind of similar and they're really simple to build, but argon lasers, they're ace."
"It's impossible not to think of everything."
It's a bit much to claim that what you're working on could be one of the greatest inventions in human history. Then again, maybe that kind of hyperbole is understandable when you're talking about a technology that could allow us to feel like we're in another world.
Luckey sometimes sounds like he's getting ahead of himself, like when he suggests that virtual reality could solve some of society's most formidable problems. "If you can have a virtual world that is as satisfying as the real world then you can live in a post-scarcity world without actually having to solve all of the hard problems of renewable energy, renewable resources. It's all renewable, because it has no actual physical [existence]."
You can't eat virtual food, of course. Sure, he counters, but "do you necessarily need to eat the food that you virtually think you are?"
Maybe you need to. Maybe you don't. And maybe VR will or won't resolve an energy crisis. It can, however, revolutionize more than just game-playing. Education, Luckey thinks. Medicine. Film-making. And more. "Reading books like Snow Crash," he says, referring to Neal Stephenson's classic VR sci-fi novel, "it's impossible to not think about everything."
But, yeah, VR and gaming. It could be terrific. He's thought that for a long time. "You want to actually be inside the game," he tells me, using Fallout 3 as an example. "You're seeing a post-apocalyptic world. You're getting a good idea of what the artists are trying to convey and the story, but you don't actually feel like you're doing it. To me, it always felt like you're controlling somebody else who's doing it. Even in first-person. Almost like you've got a remote control robot and you're telling them what to do."
How often do people in the porn industry call him?
"All the time."
Tons of people do, Luckey says. Everyone seems to want in on VR. Oculus will let them in, selling its development kits for months to any developers with a dream. He said people would ask if Oculus was going to work with architecture firms and with the military and with pornographic filmmakers. "We don't have to work with most of those things, because they're going to do it on their own," he says. "We're mostly focusing on the games industry and we're also looking into collaborating in spaces for film or music, but mostly we're focused on games and everything else people can do on their own. "
Star Trek Got It Wrong
Bad news, everyone: Star Trek didn't get VR right. Not at all. Luckey explains this when the topic of the holodeck inevitably comes up. It's cool in the show, he admitted, but it's not the way to go. It's not our ultimate VR future.
"The holodeck, I think, is the complete wrong way to go about doing perfect virtual reality," he says. "What the holodeck is doing is trying to make a virtual world that can piggyback onto the end of all of your senses: onto your taste buds, onto the nerves of your fingers, onto everything else. That would be insanely hard and I don't think we'll ever do that."
Star Trek fans shouldn't be bummed out by Luckey's holodeck pessimism, though, because he's got an even more extraordinary vision for the future of VR.
"To get perfect virtual reality we're going to need to tap into a deeper level, whether that's into the nervous system or directly into the brain, I don't know," he says. "So we won't build the holodeck type thing where we can tack onto our existing senses. We're going to have to go a lot further than that. For perfect VR we don't need technological advancement as much as we need medical advancement."
Remember that idea of Palmer Luckey being a dreamer? Remember that he's so young and has so much future ahead of him? He agrees with me to look far, far ahead, well beyond any Oculus product in development.
"Perfect VR can't be a headset," he says, "not in terms of a screen that shoots light into your eyes. A perfect VR device would need to go past the initial..."
He catches himself and smiles.
"These are the kinds of predictions where you make them and then you look back in 20 years and think, 'god that was so stupid, that wasn't even close.' Maybe it's a biological thing. Maybe we flood our bodies with nanobots that attach in the right way... maybe it's a brain implant... maybe if we can reasonably figure out dry electrodes it'll be a hat you put on that stimulates your brain that way... it's too hard to predict any one of the things."
To bring things back to the present, Oculus VR's improvements have been slow and steady. Over the last year or so, developers on the project have increased the goggles' resolution. They've added head tracking, so that you can do something like lean forward in your virtual reality cockpit and read the displays on your dashboard.
The tech will keep improving, and somewhere, somehow, there will be a futuristic leap. For a guy as energetically invested in moving life forward as Luckey, waiting for that leap can be frustrating.
"This totally sucks," he says. "It's one of the worst things about working in VR. I want that perfect VR to come, but it's kind of an x factor. There's no clear timeline to when it will happen. There's a clear timeline for great haptics, great body-tracking, resolution beyond the human eye—there's a good path to that. But for truly perfect VR that is equivalent to the real world, it's going to take a few huge breakthroughs, the kind you can't predict. You don't slog along, it's a massive shift in our understanding of how things work."
There's plenty of time to get there. And it's plenty likely that Palmer Luckey, restless and enterprising as ever, will be there when it happens.