Oculus founder Palmer Luckey's role in Clinton smear group remains murky

VR's boy genius funneled money toward a shady pro-Trump charity. But he disagrees with The Daily Beast about what he did -- or didn't -- say.

Sean Hollister Senior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
Sean Hollister
5 min read
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Palmer Luckey

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The man who's become the face of virtual reality is apologizing -- but not for his decision to fund a Hillary Clinton smear organization.

On Thursday, The Daily Beast reported that Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, 24, was the mysterious "NimbleRichMan" funneling money to a pro-Trump organization called Nimble America. The Beast's source: Palmer Luckey himself. "I thought it sounded like a real jolly good time," Luckey, who sold Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014, told the online news site.

But Luckey on Friday said the Daily Beast's story wasn't quite accurate. Though he admits sending $10,000 to Nimble America -- and apologizes for any damage he may have done to Facebook's reputation -- the Oculus founder says he's not the same NimbleRichMan whose comments further angered VR developers and fans.

"I am deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners," Luckey said in a post on Facebook. "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 did not write the "NimbleRichMan" posts."

Luckey's statement on Facebook.
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Luckey's statement on Facebook.

Luckey's statement on Facebook.

Screenshot by CNET

But after Luckey released his statement Friday evening, Daily Beast author Gideon Resnick challenged it, tweeting screenshots of emails in which an alleged Luckey claims to be NimbleRichMan (tweet embedded below). Luckey's statement didn't confirm or deny that he told the Daily Beast that, and the emails appear to be legitimate. CNET obtained unredacted copies of the emails from Resnick, and they contain Palmer Luckey's personal cell number and email address.

Luckey declined to reply to repeated requests for comment.

While Luckey's statement makes clear he funded Nimble America, it doesn't answer all the questions.

What we do know is that on September 17, a Reddit user by that name reached out to r/The_Donald -- a pro-Donald Trump community on Reddit with over 200,000 members -- offering to match donations to Nimble America.

Nimble America describes itself as a charity promising to erect real-life billboards plastered with anti-Hillary Clinton memes. NimbleRichMan's Reddit post has been deleted, but you can access an archive here.

Two Reddit moderators, and right-wing political journalist Milo Yiannopoulos, vouched for the mysterious "billionaire," but the Reddit community was skeptical, with many members questioning NimbleRichMan's identity and whether Nimble America was the legitimate 501(c)4 nonprofit entity it claimed to be. (According to IRS regulations, 501(c)4 nonprofits can't primarily engage in political activity.)

Luckey stepped forward, according to the Daily Beast, to defuse the controversy.

But when tech enthusiasts heard VR's boy genius was secretly using his Oculus money to fund so-called "shitposts," the fallout was swift. ( Forbes estimates Luckey's personal fortune at $700 million.)

On social media, goofy memes of Luckey prancing about in a VR headset became serious, with a happy-go-lucky Time Magazine cover from August 2015 twisted to explain Luckey's seeming lack of touch with reality.

It's an unfortunate time for Oculus to attract controversy. On October 5, the company will host its annual Oculus Connect developer conference, and this year's event was meant to be a reset for the $599 VR headset. It went on sale to a lot of fanfare in March, but Oculus delayed release of the game controllers that let users reach out and touch things in games. News about when the controllers will finally be released is expected at next month's conference in San Jose, California.

But the day after the Daily Beast's story, two indie VR developers threatened to stop supporting Oculus unless Luckey steps down. And the developer of SuperHyperCube, which comes out first on the rival PlayStation VR game system, tweeted that it won't support the Oculus platform.

One of Nimble America's alleged attack ads.

One of Nimble America's alleged attack ads.

Nimble America

Insomniac Games, the major game studio behind the Oculus-published Edge of Nowhere game, defended its association with Oculus in a statement to video game news site Kotaku. "This behavior and sentiment does not reflect the values of the many Oculus employees we work with on a daily basis," Insomniac Games wrote.

In the rush to figure out how VR's poster boy could be a secret Trump supporter, some journalists delved into the various things Luckey has "liked" on Twitter to try to determine his political stance. Gizmodo went further, saying Luckey's longtime girlfriend is an avid supporter of the Republican presidential nominee.

Many prominent tech executives have voiced their personal support for a candidate. Palmer's secretive support might in part be attributable to Silicon Valley's vocal opposition to Trump's candidacy.

In July, for example, more than 140 tech leaders -- including internet pioneer Vint Cerf, Box CEO Aaron Levie, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak -- signed an open letter saying Trump "would be a disaster for innovation." PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, who endorsed Trump onstage at the Republican National Convention in July, is one the few tech titans to openly support Trump.

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The since-deleted text of NimbleRichMan's original post. Click to enlarge.

Screenshot by Sean Hollister/CNET

Going against the Valley's mindset can have consequences. Two years ago, Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich was forced to step down as CEO -- after just nine days in the role -- because he opposed gay marriage. Most of the Valley supported it.

However, in Luckey's statement Friday, he says he's a libertarian who plans to vote for Gary Johnson, not Trump, in this next election.

And either way, it seems that Facebook will tolerate his actions. "Everyone at Oculus is free to support the issues or causes that matter to them, whether or not we agree with those views," wrote Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe in a follow-up statement. "It is important to remember that Palmer acted independently in a personal capacity, and was in no way representing the company."

We still don't know who NimbleRichMan is, though, if not Luckey.

In the wake of the Daily Beast story, other alleged Nimble America supporters are distancing themselves from the organization. The Reddit moderators who originally promoted the org to members of r/The_Donald have both submitted their resignations, and Yiannopoulos told CNET on Friday, "I have no interest or role in it or any opinion about it."

"All I did was confirm that NimbleRichMan was a billionaire I knew," Yiannopoulos said.

Yiannopoulos didn't respond to two follow-up requests about whether Luckey was that billionaire.

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

First published September 23, 7:30 p.m. PT.
Update, 8:40 and 9:46 p.m.: Adds detail on Luckey's statement and information on Daily Beast's challenge to it.
Update, September 24 at 10:36 a.m. PT: Adds information suggesting that Daily Beast's emails with Luckey are genuine, and Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe's statement.