Last week in San Jose, California, thousands of mostly youngish white guys attended Oculus VR’s third annual developer’s conference. Over three days in the San Jose Convention Center, attendees milled from one talk to another and hit up parties with open bars and plenty of food. VR demos were on offer in the hallways, and Mark Zuckerberg gave a keynote speech where he talked about the future of virtual reality and demoed Facebook’s social VR app. It was all about what you’d expect, save for one notable absence: Palmer Luckey, the 24-year-old founder of Oculus VR, the company that makes the Oculus Rift headset, was nowhere to be found.
That’s probably because Luckey, the one-time heir apparent to the future of gaming, has been on the receiving end of a litany of bad press lately. In September, The Daily Beast exposed Luckey’s apparent involvement in a pro-Trump, anti-Clinton political organisation called Nimble America, which has the stated mission of proving that “shitposting is powerful and meme magic is real”. (Luckey later lied about some aspects of his involvement with the group, according to Gideon Resnick, The Daily Beast writer who broke the story.) Luckey has also faved tweets that indicate his support for Trump. The coverage prompted at least five game studios and a handful of indie Oculus developers to leave the platform, and caused what was undoubtedly a massive PR headache for Facebook.
In years past, the boy-genius Rift creator had been a central figure at the developer’s conference, and presented alongside Mark Zuckerberg after Facebook bought Oculus for $US2 billion ($2.6 billion) in 2014. Luckey was also one of virtual reality’s most beloved evangelists, and Facebook made a point of showing him off. Zuckerberg appeared alongside Palmer in a fawning Vanity Fair profile of Oculus last year, and later shared it to his Facebook page, writing, “I’m very excited for the world to experience what Palmer [Luckey], [Oculus CEO] Brendan [Iribe], [Oculus Vice President of product] Nate [Mitchell] and everyone at Oculus have been working on.” But a year later, it’s exceedingly difficult to get anyone at Facebook to say anything about Luckey at all.
Among the events at the conference was an unadvertised, invite-only “diversity luncheon” that was closed to the press. Invites were sent to various employees on Oculus’ staff, as well as participants from Oculus’ “launch pad” program, which is essentially an incubator for virtual reality creators from diverse backgrounds.
I was curious about whether any Oculus employees mentioned Luckey at the lunch, as several developers had by then pulled their games from the Oculus platform, or at least threatened to. “In a political climate as fragile and horrifying as this one, we cannot tacitly endorse these actions by supporting Luckey or his platform,” virtual reality developers Kokoromi and Polytron announced in a joint statement. “In light of this, we will not be pursuing Oculus support for our upcoming VR release, SUPERHYPERCUBE.” Scruta Games also announced it would pull games from the Oculus platform in light of Luckey’s involvement with Nimble America. “It’s not about ‘politics’,” the company wrote on Twitter. “It’s about the face of a company financially backing racist trolls. He is free to vote for whoever he pleases.”
As the lunch went on, I approached people as they were leaving, asking if they’d speak to me about what happened. Most, with the exception of Oculus employees, were happy to talk. And just about everyone gave a favourable review of the lunch, though some were confused as to why Luckey wasn’t mentioned at all. “Oculus’ silence is deafening,” one developer, Dina Karam, told me. “I wish they would at least acknowledge it.”
While asking another lunch attendee to speak with me, a woman I didn’t know pulled me aside, holding my business card. She said that if I continued to approach people leaving the event, I would be kicked out. When I asked if she worked at Oculus or for Oculus PR, she refused to tell me and went back into the lunch. I later found out that her name was Paula Cuneo, and that she’d worked at Oculus doing strategic marketing for the past three years.
Inside the lunch, several attendees told me, Oculus employees spoke to developers who were planning to leave the platform because of Luckey, and tried to get them to stay. When one answered that they wished Oculus would, at worst, make a statement acknowledging the situation and, at best, have Palmer no longer be involved with Oculus, a representative told the developer that neither of those things was going to happen.
I had a similar experience when I asked John Carmack, the company’s CTO, about Luckey. Carmack has faced criticism in the past, after a woman asked him about the “gender gap” in virtual reality and he replied, “We are having a hard time hiring all the people we want. It doesn’t matter what they look like.” I asked Carmack what he thought about the recent controversy surrounding Luckey. He chuckled and headed towards his upcoming keynote. When I continued to ask Carmack questions, like whether Luckey was still employed at Facebook, Carmack’s PR handler held his briefcase to my face and said “We’re not talking to you.” Something similar happened when I tried to ask Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe about Palmer. “I… I can’t,” Iribe told me. “I have to go find my mum, sorry.”
Beyond getting anyone at Oculus to talk to me about Luckey, no one at the event would tell me if he still worked for Facebook or in what capacity. Joe Chen, Oculus’ 10th employee, worked at Oculus though the Facebook acquisition, eventually leaving in January 2015. He told me he considers himself a friend of Luckey’s, but seemed unclear on his friend’s employment status. “I know he was employed by Facebook, but that’s all I can say,” Chen told Gizmodo. “I don’t want to make an assumption on the record. All I know is that I was employed. I honestly can’t comment on that, I don’t know.”
In an email to Gizmodo yesterday, Oculus’ Head of Communications Tera Randall said that Luckey is still employed at Oculus. “[Luckey] did not want to be a distraction and chose not to attend [the Oculus developer’s confrence],” Randall said.
Luckey did not respond to a request for comment.
On September 22, Luckey published a statement on Facebook, saying he was “deeply sorry that my actions are negatively impacting the perception of Oculus and its partners.” Since then, he’s gone completely silent. His typically active Twitter feed hasn’t updated in a month, and the same goes for his Facebook page. His LinkedIn profile says he’s still employed at Oculus. Luckey used to be trotted out for interviews to speculate on the future on virtual reality, but a recent interview about Oculus Rift with The Verge featured Oculus CEO Iribe, instead. The interview didn’t touch on Luckey at all.
By all appearances, Luckey is lying low at Facebook’s behest — probably while the company waits for the uproar over his recent activities and political inclinations to die down. But for some developers, the revelations about Luckey are making them question their long-term commitment to the platform. “I’m thinking in the back of my head,” Kate Oppenheim, Executive Producer at mssngpeces, told Gizmodo. “Do I really want to do work that helps [Luckey] make more money?”