After six months of radio silence on the issue, Facebook has announced that Palmer Luckey is leaving the company. Luckey, who has made no social media posts since September 23, ran into trouble after being financially linked to Nimble America, a non-profit that described itself as a “social welfare 501(c)4 non-profit dedicated to shitposting in real life.” Since then, he’s kept himself scarce, only appearing in public to testify in Zenimax Media’s lawsuit against Oculus. (Luckey himself was found personally liable for $ 50 million in damages to Zenimax).
It was barely more than a year ago that Luckey hand-delivered the first Oculus Rift order to a pre-order customer in Alaska, but he wasn’t exactly beloved by the Oculus community before any issues of politics were raised.
He was excoriated for promising that the Rift would be “in the neighborhood” of $ 350 before revealing a price tag of $ 600. In 2013, Luckey had stated that if Oculus cost $ 600, he’d consider it a failure. He also took fire for prioritizing Best Buy retail shipments over pre-order customers, a massive shipment backlog that gave HTC’s Vive an enormous advantage in early shipments, declared that the Oculus Store wouldn’t use DRM (only to renege on that promise, only to reverse course again when the public blowback hit), and various other attempts to secure custom games for the Oculus Store via exclusivity deals.
It’s not fair to treat Luckey as the sole reason that these things played out the way they did, but the $ 500M lawsuit that Zenimax won against Facebook on February 1 cost him $ 50M personally because Oculus was found liable for a breach of NDA with Zenimax that the company signed in 2012. Facebook released a formal statement on the matter to UploadVR. It reads:
Palmer will be dearly missed. Palmer’s legacy extends far beyond Oculus. His inventive spirit helped kickstart the modern VR revolution and helped build an industry. We’re thankful for everything he did for Oculus and VR, and we wish him all the best.
Online speculation about why Luckey left (or was allowed to resign) have run the gamut from fallout for his political views, to his disastrous PR gaffes of last year, to the fact that his negligence about upholding an NDA just cost his parent company quite a bit of money. At the same time, a lot of the mistakes Palmer Luckey did make could arguably be tied to the fact that he catapulted from “20 year-old kid with an idea” to “billionaire VR tycoon” in just a few years. He was bright, and he was lucky (no pun intended). But there’s a reason why you don’t see many people in their 20s running huge corporations — and the ones you do see often have problems with blatantly lying to investors, corporate partners, and federal investigators.
It’s not clear yet if Oculus or VR itself have a viable future. Certainly both Nvidia and AMD are hoping they do, and other companies, like Sony, have launched VR headsets or are preparing to do so. That may be Luckey’s longest-lasting legacy, assuming the technology actually evolves into something that a significant number of people want to own. He didn’t do it perfectly, but he did spark a renewed interest in VR, and helped to turn what had been regarded as a fad technology of the late 1990s into a viable, shipping product. The HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift aren’t perfect, but they offer a VR experience that’s light-years above what many people, including myself, would’ve thought possible by 2016 way back in 2010.
Top image credit: Flickr/evrydayvr/