Virtual reality is more than just video games for Palmer Luckey (Q&A)

The founder of Oculus and mind behind the modern VR movement is enthusiastic about his industry's burgeoning prospects, but sees challenges too.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
5 min read

Oculous founder Palmer Luckey sees bright future for virtual reality. Oculus

HOLLYWOOD--Palmer Luckey is on top of the world.

He just wrapped up the first conference devoted to the virtual reality headset he helped invent and the company he helped found: Oculus VR. Developers traveled here from around the globe in order to meet one another, swap ideas, and demonstrate their products.

Oculus' headset, called the Rift , has been slowly making its way to store shelves. The company has created numerous prototypes and shipped about 120,000 of them to eager developers who have whipped up video games and other programs, as well as various accessories over the past two years.

On Saturday, the company announced the latest iteration of its device, called Crescent Bay, which features an improved display and new attached headphones. Luckey, who celebrated his 22nd birthday during the conference, said he'd wanted to work on audio devices since before Oculus was founded.

The company also gave demonstrations of the Gear VR , a device designed in partnership with Samsung, built to work with the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. The device is designed to offer a broad range of experiences ranging from games to movies, played on simulated large screen theaters.

But the real show was the development community that's sprouted up around him and his device. Developers lined the floors and coffee tables, showing off their latest projects.

Luckey is happy the world is turning to his point of view. To him, VR's day is long overdue. Had the technology industry paid as much attention to it a decade ago as it did back when it was the technology du jour of movies in 30 years ago, VR headsets would already be on store shelves. To him, Oculus owes some of its success to the industry's lack of foresight.

Now he and Oculus, having been purchased by Facebook for $2 billion will need to convince everyone else that this is more than a flash in the pan of the tech industry.

Luckey discussed that and more in an interview with CNET. The following is an edited Q&A:

Question: What do you think people still don't understand about VR?
Luckey: I don't think they understand why it's relevant to them yet. A lot of people, even if they know what VR is, see it as this tool to go in your basement and play Halo. I was about to correct myself and say another game, but that's what a grandmother would say: "Oh, you're going to plug it into your Nintendo and play Halo."

But that type of perception is going to change as virtual reality becomes more mainstream and they get to see things like VR cinema or 3D-360 degree panoramas or communicate with people over long distances. They're going to see this is relevant to them in their daily lives as a not-pimply-faced-teenage-kid.

That's going to be a difficult perception to overcome.

What will it take? Will it take marketing spending?
Luckey: It's going to take good content, units in the field, and a probably lot of grassroots evangelism. I don't think a television ad and can nearly be as effective as showing people this thing.

When do the large game makers, like Electronic Arts, Activision, and Ubisoft start jumping into VR?
Luckey: A lot of them are investing in VR right now. I can't say anything specifically, but there are multibillion-dollar game development studios doing serious work in VR. But they're not the people who are here showing off demos in the hallway. They're the ones working internally to make sure it's something that's polished and that they can show and not get criticized for it because they're under a lot more scrutiny...

Games take years to make, and it's important that when we launch, it can't just be a great launch catalog and then a desert for a really long time. To be honest, for a lot of developers, they'd rather not be competing at launch with all this other software.

When did you decide that mobile VR was important?
Luckey: We've known it would be important for a long time. Even since the beginning of the company, people said "what's the long-term vision of how these headsets are going to work?" And it's very clear--in the future, it's all going to be headsets with onboard computing power... We knew mobile would be an important component, we just didn't know it would be so soon.

It's been a couple months since the acquisition closed, so what's it like being at Facebook?
Luckey: We're continuing to work largely on the same things we were working on before the acquisition. We have a space up in the Facebook office, we also have our office down in Irvine, and to be honest the biggest change has been having the resources to hire everyone we need. We've been hiring really fast, we've hired a lot of people, especially in the Bay Area.

I heard your executive team is moving to the Bay Area?
Luckey: A lot of the managing execs, including myself, are going to be going up to Menlo Park because that's where we're expanding the most right now. Irvine [the company's current headquarters] is a fully operational unit. Like I said, there's a lot of people we couldn't get down to Irvine and now that we're stable and have the resources and an office up there, we can hire them, and it makes sense for us to be where we're growing, where we're hiring, where we're building a team rather than where we already have a great team.

What's your role in the company now? Are you working on hardware?
Luckey: I'm basically doing the same things I always have been: Working with the hardware team on the next generation of our hardware and productizing stuff. I'm also making sure the company's direction is on track, which as the company grows is something that becomes very important; You can't take it for granted as much when you're just a few guys doing the same thing day after day.

Are you in the research labs?
Luckey: We have an Oculus research lab in Seattle that we've talked about, and that's really more pure research, like long-term. I work more on the near-term productization team. And it's in terms of there is R&D, but it's not years out, it's in the near-term like getting the next product out the door and making it as good as possible-type of R&D.