Palmer Luckey’s Departure From Oculus Highlights Raised Stakes For VR

by Ian Hamilton • March 31st, 2017

The above tweet comes from May 17, 2012, almost five years ago now, with John Carmack showing off the early prototype of the Rift he received from Palmer Luckey. This tweet helps mark the beginning of a journey that drove interest in VR to include millions of people.

A lot can change in five years. Now, the stakes are raised with billions of potential customers being pursued by the world’s biggest technology companies.

We were surprised when we heard in December Oculus co-founder and former CEO Brendan Iribe moved into a role at Facebook focused on leading a PC VR research team. A month later, we learned why it happened.

Turns out Google veteran and former Android leader Hugo Barra was Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s choice to lead the company’s VR efforts. Now with Barra, the company seems to be embarking on a larger reorganization effort inside Facebook to streamline the company’s push into mixed reality. Here’s Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack replying to TechCrunch writer Lucas Matney saying the reorganization has helped clarify “a lot of things”:

March 31 was of course Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey’s last day at Facebook. The company indicated to us in December he was still an employee and we’d get updates on his role soon. Aside from a $500 million decision from a Texas jury, however, the biggest change for Oculus since December is the addition of Barra to the team. So it seems possible Luckey’s departure might be a byproduct of Facebook attempting to clarify the positions and goals of key leadership and teams within the company. Update: Barra’s first official day at Facebook is April 3, the first weekday after Luckey’s last day at the company. Facebook declined to comment about the reason for Luckey’s departure, and Luckey hasn’t responded to a request for comment via his Facebook account, but is it possible Luckey just didn’t fit into the new plan?

Facebook continues to hire for dozens more positions in a huge build up against Google, Amazon, Microsoft and whatever secret projects Apple is cooking up. Microsoft, for instance, just hired Liz Hamren from Oculus to lead the company’s marketing efforts as mixed reality becomes a high priority for the tech giant this year. On the technical side, Microsoft hired pioneering researcher Mark Bolas last year. In October, Facebook hired Rachel Rubin Franklin to head up the company’s social VR efforts, drawing on her experience with The Sims to put us in shared virtual worlds.

UploadVR recently spoke with Max Cohen, the head of mobile product at Oculus, who explained the need for the reorganization:

We’ve always thought of Oculus as spanning both mobile and PC. In reality, that’s tough. It’s tough on engineering. It’s tough on roadmaps. It’s tough on just making sure that you are able to move quickly for platforms that are pretty different. The Rift is a gaming platform first, and so it has some needs that aren’t always the same as Gear, which is a platform that really shines with some of the movies and videos and some light gaming as well.

While the company still works to make technologies cross-platform, “you now have people that identify more closely with one particular organization,” Cohen said. Engineers aren’t in silos, as Cohen put it, but the reorganization is meant to help with focus and the “functional speed of execution.”

While Palmer Luckey undeniably kickstarted interest in VR with the Rift crowdfunding project, it is not clear that he could help the company quickly execute on its ideas and bring a standalone headset to market one day that marries the best of mobile headsets to the best of PC ones.

oculus-touch-7

Carmack has been focused on mobile since he joined the company, and his focused work helped get Gear VR to market in late 2014. Luckey’s Rift, the thing which got people interested in VR, is just now hitting its stride in 2017 (despite research and funding starting in 2012) with tracking bugs fixed, quality content rolling out frequently and impressive hand controllers.

Even so, Gear VR is owned by more than 5 million people, while the Rift’s numbers are kept secret probably because they aren’t anything to be impressed by yet, at least in comparison to PSVR’s nearly 1 million sold. The larger takeaway being that Carmack is still at Oculus in the same role he’s always been in because he’s a highly proficient and experienced engineer with a track record of delivering lots of good ideas. Just today the roll-out of a software improvement is underway born from Carmack’s work which dramatically improves the perceived resolution inside the Gear VR — eliminating a major criticism of the technology when folks first notice the pixels and find text hard to read.

The stakes for mixed reality have been raised now that Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Google and Amazon are buying into VR and AR so heavily. Carmack’s contributions after the Kickstarter campaign for Oculus are clear, but Luckey’s contributions much less so. The Touch controllers were referred to as his “pet project,” but his efforts to be the public face of the company may have been a distraction precisely when everything at Facebook needed to accelerate.

This seems to mean Oculus needs more people like John Carmack. And while Luckey will be “dearly missed” at Facebook, it is likely they’ll be looking to Carmack as the model for future engineering hires.

Update: The last paragraph of this story was updated to make a clearer point.

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  • CURTROCK

    A very astute summation of where the VR industry is today. Well written.

  • jimrp

    Hope Luckey got a nice check on the way out. if it was not for his ideas first shit would not happened. In my head he was the man who got VR right at customers reach. like everyone else knew FB would buy his idea and kick him out.

    • newbedave

      You lay down with dogs you get fleas

    • bliglum .

      The sellout has got hundreds of millions in the bank, well compensated.

  • M0rdresh

    Its amazing how a set of (disconnected) events can change ones life.

  • DrakeDoesn’tWrite

    The things that I’m seeing now is why I went with the Vive. As I said months ago, Vive is with the Gaming people aka Valve. If Oculus is not profitable fast enough for Zuckerberg and Co. liking they WILL get rid of it. They WILL stop putting resources into it. GEAR will always be here though. Vive/Valve had a much better understanding of VR. They knew it would be mostly niche for a bit. Facebook only wanted Oculus because they thought they could monopolize VR. They didn’t expect competition so soon.

    • MWRS

      Facebook’s investment in VR is for the long run – when the thing becomes mainstream they want to be the go-to platform, like the iPhone became the go-to platform for the smartphone. With that goal in mind they hurl money into game development and subsidised hardware without any real short-term profit in sight. Which is great news for us early adopters 🙂

      Their biggest mistake was probably thinking 360 degree/roomscale VR would be a small niche while Valve knew this was the killer app from the start.

      • DrakeDoesn’tWrite

        They’ll hurl money into GEAR. I dunno about Oculus. I agree. They absolutely didn’t see Vive coming. It’s pretty embarrassing that Vive was able to put out good working VR Controller before Oculus too.

        • Scott C

          That’s like suggesting Apple should be embarrassed that HTC was making touch-screen phones before they got one to market.

          The Touch is the gold standard in motion controllers, and Oculus’ strategy has been to provide a well-curated market, jump-start the content there with boatloads of funding to circumvent the chicken/egg feedback loop, and wrap it all up in an appealing mature, ergonomic package and a top-notch user experience.

          That sounds a lot like the iPhone, which wasn’t the first touch-phone, nor the first phone with purchasable utility and entertainment programs. But the App Store was a game changer in that it helped you find those programs, made it easy to submit them, and ensured they ran well and filtered out buggy or useless shovelware. The UI for the iPhone was natural and comfortable, and the user experience became the model that every phone out there had to align itself to.

          Yet nobody ridicules Apple because HTC was making Window Mobile phones like the Tilt before they revolutionized the smartphone with the iPhone.

  • Palmer won a chocolate eating contest. No one seems to care about that.

  • jimrp

    it is April am i being fooled on the story