Editors’ note: Below this introduction is an unedited excerpt from The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality, a book by Blake J. Harris released Tuesday from Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
At first glance, the story behind Oculus VR, a company co-founded by teenage wunderkind Palmer Luckey, reads like a Silicon Valley fairy tale.
Luckey began building virtual reality headsets nearly a decade ago, a time when few were even trying. He eventually drew the attention of Mark Zuckerberg and sold his fledgling company to Facebook for nearly $3 billion. And he inspired a renaissance in VR tech that prompted multibillion-dollar efforts by some of tech’s biggest players and new VR projects at Samsung, HTC, Microsoft and Apple that continue to this day.
But not all fairy tales have happy endings. Author Blake J. Harris chronicles Luckey’s unlikely rise and his eventual ouster from Facebook, following exposure of his political activity around the 2016 US presidential election. Harris said he based his reporting on a combination of interviews with Luckey and those around him, as well as documents and emails from within the team.
Harris also takes us on an inside tour of Luckey’s journey, from his early days on internet forums like ModRetro, to what it was like for Oculus after Facebook’s takeover in March 2014. Almost immediately, there was backlash from VR enthusiasts who hoped Oculus would stay independent. Techies were also uncomfortable with Facebook’s use of advertising to make money — and Zuckerberg’s reported ruthlessness as a businessman.
For some, there was a lingering question: Was Facebook too evil a company to work with?
Those working at Oculus, including Luckey’s co-founder Brendan Iribe, argued that selling to Facebook gave them access to more resources and money to see through their vision by building higher-quality headsets, investing in more research and funding apps, games and experiences made by outside developers.
The team, including legendary game maker John Carmack and early employees Chris Dycus, Joe Chen and Julian Hammerstein, almost immediately began to show what their new parent’s resources would do for Oculus. Between when Zuckerberg announced the purchase and the team’s first day at the social-networking giant, Oculus acquired a firm called Carbon Design Group, which worked on controllers to complement the company’s VR headset.
Two years later, Facebook released the Oculus Rift to the consumer world, initially charging $599 for the headset (it now costs $349). Early reviews of the device, including from CNET, spoke of its potential to upend the way we use computers. Today, we’re still waiting.
The excerpt below describes what it was like when the Oculus team went to work for Facebook, after the acquisition was completed in the summer of 2014.
Something felt off.
But Joe Chen couldn’t put his finger on exactly what the issue was.
This was supposed to be a celebratory day—Oculus’s official on-boarding at Facebook—and, thus far, it had indeed felt special. Never before had every Oculus employee been together in the same place at the same time. From those who worked at the home base in Irvine to those who worked elsewhere—either remotely or in satellite offices (like Carmack’s crew or the newly acquired Team Carbon)—everyone was here, at Facebook’s campus in Menlo Park, getting a firsthand look at all the resources that would now be at Oculus’s disposal. And yet, for Chen, something still felt off.
“Is it just me, or are you guys picking up a weird vibe?” Chen asked Dycus and Hammerstein as they took a short shuttle ride to the building where the day’s orientation sessions would be held.
Dycus, he of the famous Facebooking-evil question, stared blankly at Chen as if to say: Oh, now you feel it! Though his first impression of Facebook’s campus had been positive and he was currently feeling more optimistic than he had expected. For a big corporation, Facebook certainly didn’t feel very “corporate.” Tons of employees were dressed casually in T-shirts (often emblazoned with the Facebook logo); and the on-campus arcade, movie theater, and quad cultivated a very collegiate aura.
“Everyone seems super upbeat,” Hammerstein noted. “I mean, I know we only saw them for like five minutes! But still… pretty impressive considering the circumstances.”
The “circumstances” were that right before they arrived on campus, Facebook—the website—had crashed and gone off-line for about thirty-five minutes. So it wouldn’t have been a total shock to have seen a handful of engineers chaotically running around the place. But, no, there was none of that. Even with the outage, Facebook’s campus was filled with shiny, happy people.
Chen nodded. Everything Hammerstein and Dycus had said made sense. Maybe that pit in his stomach was just nerves—just a little gurgle of uncertainty now that the acquisition was actually happening.
Whatever it was, Chen tried not to think about it. This was easy to do when he and all his Oculus colleagues received brand-new, Facebook-issued laptops.
Mac laptops, Luckey noted. He found this humorous because the single biggest theme of all the onboard presentations was “openness” and Apple, of course, famously ran closed systems on their hardware.
Obviously, that was a very different sort of openness than the kind Facebook hammered home throughout the day. From the HR rep who kicked off their on-boarding session to the manager who finally dismissed them for the day, they were talking about an ethos of transparency that was critical to Facebook’s mission. That’s why Facebook execs didn’t have individual offices; why the buildings on campus had no locks on their doors; and why employees were allowed (and even encouraged) to migrate freely between projects. Openness, as it was preached over and over, was central to Facebook achieving its underlying mission of making the world a better place.
Still though, Luckey thought: at least jailbreak that Apple shit!
“I hear ya,” Chen told Luckey when he voiced his opinion, though if Chen did, it was just barely. Because by this point in the day that pit in his stomach had grown to a sharp, stiffening full-body feeling. And that’s when he realized exactly what this sour sonofabitch feeling actually was: heartbreak.
What was there to feel heartsick about? They had just sold their company for $3 billion and, literally, everyone on the team still had a job so they’d all keep working together for years. Nothing was changing . . . except for the amount of money in their pockets! But even Chen knew that wasn’t actually true. Everything was about to change, and, in fact, it had already started: Oculus’s recent hiring frenzy. Competitors jumping into VR. And then the one that actually stung: how hated Oculus had become in some corners of the internet.
The days of wall-to-wall races and family dinners were over. The time of maximum impact had come to an end. Oculus’s mission—to finally deliver the promise of VR—was ultimately subservient to Facebook’s mission of . . . well, that was the other reason Chen’s heart was breaking: all these people who worked at Facebook, all these shiny happy people, actually seemed to believe that they were contributing to some sort of overarching, humanity-improving mission. Honestly, these people were drunk on do-good Kool-Aid!
Everything was about to change. As he looked around him, surrounded by the relaxed presences of Luckey, of Iribe, of all these people whom he had gotten to know and love in the trenches, Joe Chen thought: regardless of what I do from here on out, I’ll probably never do anything as cool as what I did at Oculus ever again.
After the onboarding session at Facebook, Iribe and Ondrejka began more seriously discussing whether or not Oculus should move their team up to the campus at Menlo Park. And ultimately, after talking it over with their respective executive teams, it was decided that this would be best for both entities.
“Hey,” Luckey said to Hammerstein. “We should move in together!”
Luckey didn’t just mean the two of them; he meant their significant others (Edelmann and Howland), and also their ModRetro brethren (Dycus and Shine).
After talking it over, it was revealed that Dycus and Shine didn’t want to live with anybody else; and Edelmann and Howland didn’t want to live with anyone beyond their respective boyfriends. But de- spite four of the six initially nixing the idea, Luckey and Hammerstein remained resilient and continued to push to make it happen. So they started looking for places to rent in the Bay Area.
Shortly after searching, Luckey excitedly told Hammerstein that he thought he’d found the perfect place. “There’s a junkyard for rent,” Luckey said. “We can go live there and buy RVs and park them at the junkyard. It’ll be cheap.”
“Palmer,” Hammerstein replied. “I don’t want to live in a junkyard.”
“But the others might want to live in a junkyard!” Luckey said.
“No, they wouldn’t!” Hammerstein replied. And then polled the other four to confirm this.
“But we’ll save so much money,” Luckey countered.
In lieu of a reply, Hammerstein just stared at Luckey—his friend who was now worth many, many millions of dollars.
Although Luckey’s junkyard play didn’t work out, the others agreed to take a trip up to the Bay Area and check out a few possible places, and then five of the six—everyone but Shine, not yet sure if he was willing to move at all—agreed that it might actually be really fun if they all lived together.
Especially because three of the six (Luckey, Edelmann, and Dycus) had never gone to college, the other two hadn’t finished (Hammerstein and Howland) and they all kind of got excited about having a dormlike experience. So in the fall of 2014, with Chen instead of Shine, this crew of cheapskate millionaires moved into a place they’d dub “the Commune.”
This excerpt is from the book The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality. Copyright © 2019 by Blake J. Harris. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Note that CNET may get a share of revenue from the sale of the book via the link below.