How 24-year-old Palmer Luckey went from selling his VR startup to Facebook for $2 billion to building a virtual border wall for Trump
Julien Rath,Madeline StoneJun 5, 2017, 22:14 IST
Robert Galbraith/ReutersPalmer Luckey.Robert Galbraith/Reuters
Palmer Luckey isn't your average 24-year-old.
Luckey is the founder of Oculus VR, the virtual reality company that sold to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. A year after the sale, Forbes estimated his net worth to be $700 million.
Luckey was quickly put on the path to greatness as the face of Facebook's fledgling VR business. He made frequent appearances at press events and conferences on behalf of Facebook and Oculus.
But less than three years later, Luckey no longer works for the VR company he helped build in his parents' garage. Luckey left Facebook and Oculus in March, only a few months after it was revealed that he funded an anti-Hillary Clinton meme group.
Now Luckey is secretly building surveillance and defense technology to be used along country borders and military bases, according to a report by The New York Times. And he's already met with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon to discuss deploying the tech along the US border with Mexico.
Here's how Luckey went from tech darling to Facebook outcast:
Luckey has also beefed up his roster of vehicles and properties in recent months, noted the Times. He owns three helicopters, a marina, and two properties built on decommissioned missile silos.
The new startup, while currently self-funded, will eventually be funded by Trump advisor Peter Thiel's Founders Fund firm, and Luckey has already discussed the effort with White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, according to the Times.
In June, The New York Times revealed that Luckey was secretly building surveillance technology as part of a new startup. One application of the technology being explored by Luckey's startup is creating a virtual border wall between the US and Mexico.
Luckey quickly became active on social media again and gave his first interview in months to a Japanese website. "It certainly was a great working environment," he said of Facebook. "But I had to restrain myself working there. I could not cosplay while working at Facebook."
All of that controversy culminated with an announcement from Facebook in late March that Luckey would be leaving the company.
He was briefly back in the spotlight when he testified in January 2017 at the trial of Zenimax, which accused him of stealing the technology for the Oculus Rift. Oculus was later ordered to pay $500 million in damages to ZeniMax for violating a non-disclosure agreement and copyright infringement. Luckey was ordered to pay ZeniMax $50 million of the $500 million verdict for false designation.
Even still, Luckey's actions were felt within Facebook's walls. Multiple female Oculus staffers resigned amidst the revelations of Luckey's political contributions. Luckey disappeared from the public eye for months.
Luckey confirmed he had donated $10,000 to the group, but denied that he had been posting pro-Trump comments on Reddit.
Despite Luckey's desire to stay out of the limelight, he was pushed into it after a report by The Daily Beast found that Luckey was funding the anti-Hillary Clinton group NimbleAmerica, which wanted to change the media discussion through "shitposting" and "meme magic."
Luckey was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, cementing him as the face of virtual reality.
The 24-year-old has a good sense of humor and is known for being a bit of a showman. He once threw out t-shirts during Oculus' mixer at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.
He also drives a 1986 GMC van that reportedly has a red shag carpet inside.
One of Luckey's purchases since the Facebook deal has been a $120,000 Tesla Model S. "[Elon Musk] is a cool guy who deserves my money," he told the Telegraph. He later told Forbes, "I figure you can buy a Tesla and not be too snooty."
Luckey is known for his casual look — he typically sports a Hawaiian shirt and sandals, but he has said that he'd prefer to be barefoot. "We invented shoes to protect our feet from the harsh environment," he told The Telegraph. "But I live in modern-day California. It’s pretty safe here. Nothing’s going to happen if I take them off."
Luckey spent a lot of his time in an executive-level suite at Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, but he was still very laid-back. "There’s a lot of people here who know all about Oculus but don’t know who I am,” he told Forbes.
A chunk of Luckey’s newfound wealth went to buying a large house in the ritzy Silicon Valley town of Atherton. He lives with seven friends in a home he calls "The Commune," where they all spend hours playing video games. This is an example of a home you might find in Atherton.
The deal immediately sky-rocketed Luckey's net worth to about $500 million. He was only 21.
The two companies signed a whopping $2 billion acquisition deal in March 2014.
It was Dixon (who described his Oculus experience as like being teleported) and Facebook board member Marc Andreessen who first connected Iribe with Mark Zuckerberg. Zuck loved his first demo so much that he quickly flew to the Oculus office to check out the latest version.
Not six months later, the big bucks rolled in. After seeing an updated demo of the device, Dixon finally felt convinced and Andreessen Horowitz led a $75 million round of funding that December.
Dixon passed on funding at the time — the headset still required duct-tape to function — but it didn't matter: Oculus VR scored $16 million in funding in June 2013.
The blockbuster campaign and subsequent demos of Oculus put Luckey and his virtual reality headset on the map. The company started getting all sorts of inbound interest, including from Chris Dixon at VC firm Andreessen Horowitz.
Luckey's vision for Oculus at the time reads quite ironically now, post-Facebook acquisition. "I won’t make a penny of profit off this project," he wrote at launch. "The goal is to pay for the costs of parts, manufacturing, shipping, and credit card/Kickstarter fees with about $10 left over for a celebratory pizza and beer."
At that point, Luckey had already connected with a gaming entrepreneur named Brendan Iribe. Luckey had stopped using a cell phone because he felt paranoid about government surveillance, but agreed to meet Iribe at a steak house. The two hit it off, and Iribe and a few of his friends invested some of their own money in helping Luckey launch the Kickstarter. They called the company Oculus VR and Iribe became CEO.
At 17, in his parents garage, Luckey started building the Oculus headset prototype that he eventually launched on the crowd-funding site Kickstarter, where it raised an astounding $2.4 million.
He became interested in virtual reality thanks to his love of video games. He spent tens of thousands of dollars to build a six-monitored computer rig. But even that wasn't immersive enough for the kind of gameplay he envisioned, so he thought, "Why not just put a small screen directly on your face?"
To help support his varied interests, a 16-year-old Luckey set up a business fixing iPhones and then selling them unlocked online. He made at least $36,000.
For a while, he became fascinated by lasers and burned a small blind-spot into one of his retinas while experimenting with them.
As a child, Luckey loved to tinker with electronics, building his own computers or gaming devices.
Luckey was born in Long Beach, California on September, 19, 1992. His father Donald was a car salesman and his mother, Julie, a stay-at-home mom who homeschooled Luckey and his three younger sisters.