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Palmer Luckey lied -- and that matters more than his politics

Commentary: VR's boy genius is caught in a lie. But which lie did he tell?

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey.

Getty Images

I don't care who Oculus founder Palmer Luckey votes for or how he spends his money.

If the 24-year-old VR pioneer decided that plastering billboards with anti-Hillary Clinton memes was the best way to spend his time, I won't boycott his Oculus Rift headset or enjoy it any less. Particularly when Oculus (and its parent company Facebook) employ lots of people who shouldn't be punished for Luckey's actions.

But I do care about the truth. And the truth is that Palmer Luckey -- the poster boy for a technology we've dreamed about for decades, the one we're trusting to build the future -- lied about what he did or didn't do.

On Tuesday, September 20, Luckey told a reporter for the Daily Beast, Gideon Resnick, that he was the mysterious "NimbleRichMan" who asked for donations to fund an anti-Clinton billboard campaign. He admitted he wrote the Reddit post. Resnick's in-depth story posted late Thursday, September 22.

(I believe Resnick, because he sent me copies of the original emails between him and Luckey that clearly show Luckey's personal email address and phone number. Resnick also tweeted an image of those emails -- shown below -- with Luckey's email redacted.)

But on Friday, September 23, responding to the resulting controversy, Luckey said he didn't write the "NimbleRichMan" posts.

Luckey's statement:

I am deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners. The recent news stories about me do not accurately represent my views.

Here's more background: I contributed $10,000 to Nimble America because I thought the organization had fresh ideas on how to communicate with young voters through the use of several billboards. I am a libertarian who has publicly supported Ron Paul and Gary Johnson in the past, and I plan on voting for Gary in this election as well.

I am committed to the principles of fair play and equal treatment. I did not write the "NimbleRichMan" posts, nor did I delete the account. Reports that I am a founder or employee of Nimble America are false. I don't have any plans to donate beyond what I have already given to Nimble America.

Still, my actions were my own and do not represent Oculus. I'm sorry for the impact my actions are having on the community.

I've seen unredacted copies of these emails, and they appear to be legitimate.

Gideon Resnick

The email to Resnick says, "I made the post" while his Facebook mea culpa says "I did not write the 'NimbleRichMan' posts." There's no daylight between those two statements; it doesn't take a detective to see one of them isn't true. Even if Luckey claims his personal account was hacked (he hasn't), Resnick also says he spoke to him on the phone.

It's pretty clear: Palmer Luckey lied, either to Gideon Resnick or to everyone.

Since neither Luckey nor Facebook (nor Oculus) would comment on the discrepancy after my repeated requests, let's explore these possibilities on our own.

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that Luckey lied to everyone -- that once he got caught red-handed by The Daily Beast's story and saw the fallout, he decided to deny the whole thing.

(If so, that would mean Luckey wasn't just an investor. According to a since-deleted passage on the NimbleAmerica website, the mysterious "NimbleRichMan" was vice president and a co-founder of the organization as well.)

This passage, quietly removed from NimbleAmerica's website on September 22, claimed that "NimbleRichMan" was a vice-president and cofounder, not just an investor.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

But I don't buy it. It doesn't make sense.

For one thing, Luckey knew that The Daily Beast would have email proof that he was lying. Why deny something so easy to refute? (In the emails, Luckey says he didn't technically create the "NimbleRichMan" account, but that doesn't matter if he personally wrote and published the posts.)

More importantly, Luckey was the one who started talking to The Daily Beast, not the other way around. It's been bugging me since I started investigating this story: Why would Luckey step forward to begin with? Why expose yourself if you could just stay anonymous?

In my experience, anonymous people only step forward for three reasons: 1) to take credit and get praised; 2) if they think they'll be unmasked anyhow and want to explain themselves; or 3) to protect someone else.

It's not like "NimbleRichMan" was naive enough to think revealing his identity would be a good idea. On Reddit, the author of those posts proactively predicted a shitstorm if he was ever exposed.

The mysterious NimbleRichMan wasn't keen on revealing his or her identity in some since-deleted Reddit posts. Click to enlarge.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

"We dare not say a word. It would destroy us," NimbleRichMan wrote in a since-archived post. "I would never dream of blacklisting a business for the political views of the men who work there, but the same cannot be said for many HRC supporters."

And it doesn't seem like Luckey was in any danger of getting found out. Resnick, the Daily Beast reporter, told me he didn't know why Luckey spoke to him in the first place.

Resnick simply asked right-wing journalist Milo Yiannopoulos to introduce him to NimbleAmerica -- since Yiannopoulos was the one who originally vouched for "NimbleRichMan" on Reddit -- and then, Luckey voluntarily spoke to Resnick by email and by phone. (Yiannopoulos, no stranger to controversy, was banned from Twitter in July.)

It doesn't add up, and so I have to wonder if, however unlikely, Luckey and Yiannopoulos were both protecting someone else. Maybe someone with even more to lose.

(Yiannopoulos ignored my repeated requests to confirm or deny that Luckey was "NimbleRichMan." Luckey declined to explain further.)

Caught in a lie

It almost doesn't matter whether or not Luckey is "NimbleRichMan." Either way, Luckey has been caught in a lie, and it's hard to come back from that.

For the company Luckey founded, the extent of the fallout is unclear. Some developers have already suggested they're walking away from the Oculus platform in protest. That's just as competitors like HTC Vive and Google's Daydream continue to look for inroads in the nascent VR space. And while the Oculus Touch controllers, the next big hardware reveal for the VR platform, are still expected to be unveiled next week at the Oculus Connect developer confab in San Jose, it will all be happening under the cloud of Luckey's ill-timed foray into the political arena.

While Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has tried to remind us that "Palmer acted independently in a personal capacity, and was in no way representing the company," Luckey's image has always been tied closely to that of Oculus. (Here's the rest of Iribe's statement.)

I've spoken to Luckey many times over the years, and he's always struck me as an honest person. He always tried to give me real, substantive answers to my questions instead of canned replies. It made me believe in his vision of how VR might change the world, even when his first product wasn't quite as impressive as the rival HTC Vive.

Now, I'm wondering what else Luckey might be lying about.

Palmer, please consider this an open invitation to come forward and explain yourself.

Full disclosure: My wife works at Facebook, owner of Oculus VR, as a business-to-business video project coordinator.