The Smithsonian Magazine hosted its third annual American Ingenuity Awards Thursday night in Washington. The event honored a group of remarkable individuals, perhaps none more interesting than Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey. The 22-year-old — who sold Oculus to Facebook for $2 billion earlier this year — was recognized for his breakthrough work in virtual reality.
As a teenager Luckey’s parents gave him half of the family’s two-car garage to use as his personal workshop. He played with Tesla coils, lasers — once briefly damaging his vision — and virtual reality headsets that he purchased at government and online auctions. Luckey credited his unusual education with how far he’s gotten:
I’ve had the blessing of growing up with supportive parents, who didn’t actually financially support my hobbies. I had to do odd jobs and stuff to make all the money myself, but they were at least very supportive of me, being flexible with my time. They home-schooled me in a way that let me prioritize my schoolwork for certain days and my other stuff for other days. And I started taking community college courses when I was 14. That gave me a lot of freedom to choose the classes on the days I wanted. I think it’s pretty safe to say that the Rift never would’ve happened had I not been home-schooled.
When you have to be a self-motivated learner, and you are not in school because you’re legally required to, but you’re there because you’re taking community college courses and you want to succeed, you want to get a grade that’ll apply for a transfer. All of the sudden you care about what you’re learning a lot more. So I wasn’t there just to get through the daily grind. I was doing what I did to learn and also learning a lot of things on the side. I learned a lot more on my own outside of school, at least when it comes to what’s relevant to what I’m doing now.
I asked Luckey to explain how a teenage kid in his parent’s garage could make a superior virtual reality product to all of the world’s tech companies, with their huge budgets and staffs:
It’s because nobody cared. Nobody was paying attention to virtual reality. That is the only reason the Rift did not exist earlier. I’ve actually done some analysis of the components used in my earlier Rift prototypes, and the prototype that [Doom creator] John Carmack used could have been built for under $1,000 in 2007 and under $500 in 2009. The exact same components or very very similar performing components. Carmack didn’t show off at E3 till 2012. Between three and six years had gone by between when the tech was finally there and when it all of the sudden caught on.
The components I was using even were relatively old — they weren’t the most cutting edge thing because they were things that I was able to obtain off the shelf and modify, so it’s just kind of interesting. You’re right, there’s all these companies — millions of dollars — you think that one of them would’ve had a VR R&D project that was going somewhere, and it turned out none of them did. Our Kickstarter proved that people wanted VR, and our hardware that we shipped proved it was finally good enough, and now you have all of these big companies like Sony and Facebook and Google and Microsoft all getting into the augmented reality and virtual reality game in a big way.
Luckey also talked about what Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg is like:
Mark’s pretty cool. He’s reminded — I don’t want to say I’m a lot like Mark Zuckerberg, but I felt like we see the world in a lot of the same ways. He’s actually a pretty down to earth guy and he wants to change the world in a lot of good ways. He agreed with the same vision. He was the only person at a large company that really agreed with our version of virtual reality. Which is that virtual reality will be a massive part of the future of entertainment and education and communication.
Despite making his mark in engineering, Luckey was actually a journalism major at California State University at Long Beach, where he was the online editor of the Daily 49er. So why take that route?
I was being kind of arrogant. My thought was ‘I’m already a self-taught engineer, I already know plenty about engineering, why would I go to school just to learn more about it. Oh, I’ll learn something about something I don’t know a lot about,’ which journalism was one of those things. I wanted to be a technology journalist that understood technology, because there are very few of those.
Update, Oct. 18: An earlier version of this story included Luckey recalling how he applied for a Thiel Fellowship and was rejected. Following publication of the blog post Luckey informed me that he “mis-communicated and mis-remembered how it actually went; I was having a pretty hectic year, and missed the application deadline.” A spokesman for the Thiel Fellowship then confirmed with me that Luckey had never applied.