I first met Palmer Luckey at a gaming awards event in 2013, shortly after a record-smashing Kickstarter campaign plonked him and the Oculus Rift on the map. In a room of industry celebs he was a relative unknown; as he roamed the floor, unchaperoned from PRs who might otherwise keep a journalist like myself away, I approached him and sparked up a chat.
We had a few brief emails back and forth after that meeting, but once Facebook bought the company in 2014 the messages stopped. When I was told that Palmer was officially leaving the company I wasn't surprised in the slightest, but it's fair to say I felt conflicted.
Let me be clear that I personally think that what Palmer did with the anti-Hillary smear campaign was shitty, and it's obvious he and I don't align in our political beliefs. On the other hand, I feel like the technical achievement of the Rift, and laying the groundwork for virtual reality's takeoff, earns him some credit. He was a catalyst for the movement, and while I hate what he did with the Nimble America campaign, I can't hate him for pursuing a dream and bringing VR back from the dead. I think this reader comment over on Ars Technica perfectly summed it up:
"Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy! You sold out your backers when you sold to Facebook. I'm so happy to see this happen to you, the only thing that dulls my happiness is knowing you have piles of money to roll in. Thank you for pushing VR technology forward, I mean that sincerely."
A lot of early backers felt betrayed when Oculus sold to Facebook, but it didn't have the same impact of last year's more damning revelations about his activities outside Oculus. The recent battle with Zenimax didn't exactly do him any favours either, though whether that affected his exit from Facebook isn't known. What we do know is that he got VR right, then he royally screwed up.
I suppose your opinion on the matter may lean on your notion of technological inevitability: do you believe that VR would have evolved to where it is today had Palmer not been around? This certainly wasn't a case of Luckey getting lucky - I've seen forum posts by Palmer dating back many years which prove how long the journey to the Rift was. Sure, Valve has been looking at VR for a long time too, and I'm certain there would be movements in the space by now, but I think it would be relatively nascent.
It was obvious when I or anyone else spoke to Palmer that he had a huge passion for what he did. His enthusiasm was refreshing in those heady, early days when VR was still the promised land. When he sold Oculus to Facebook, I was more sad that we wouldn't see the company flourish by itself, but I also understood the anger from many of the backers who felt betrayed.
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Ultimately, Palmer ended up embarrassing a company that bought him for $3 billion, and I can only speculate that Mark Zuckerberg, Brendan Iribe and probably even Luckey knew there was no coming back once the backlash started last year. This was never going to be something that people would forgive and move past, and if there was any hope it might blow over, that was surely dashed the moment Trump was elected.
At least now that his exit is official, Facebook can push ahead with its hugely ambitious plans for Oculus without the lingering cloud over its head. If you hadn't noticed, Facebook has been reorganising itself for a Palmer-less future for some while now anyway, intentionally or not.
Palmer could take this moment to ride into the sunset on a billion-dollar horse, probably wearing one of his god awful shirts. I suspect we'll hear from him again before long, however. As for right now, it doesn't feel like a moment to celebrate or mourn. It just feels a bit weird.
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