Palmer Luckey Leaves Facebook: Corporate Politics And VR's Trough Of Disillusionment
Palmer Luckey, once the boy wonder of VR’s renaissance, has announced he will be leaving the Oculus team at Facebook. Luckey had co-founded the Virtual Reality hardware company in 2012, thus ushering in the technology’s latest wave of public curiosity, as well as billions of investment in VR start-ups.
There can be several interpretations as to why the decision has come around now. Luckey caused controversy last year when it emerged he was allegedly using part of his fortune from the $3bn sale of Oculus to Facebook in 2014 to fund a Donald Trump supporting 'troll' group designed to aid the Republican candidate’s cause online. Though Luckey denied the group was pro-Trump and that he was in fact supporting the Libertarian Gary Johnson, the damage was done. His public-appearances as the face of Oculus were subsequently curbed, and he was restricted by Facebook in testifying during the ZeniMax-Oculus trial over VR copyright early this year. The discovery of such views would not have been such a concern had Palmer not been working under the umbrella of Facebook, but following the ‘fake news’ moral panics of the past year, the corporate politics of the organisation are under the microscope. Facebook continues to benefit from the liberal public image of its management team, most notably Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg. Though there is little to suggest this image is inauthentic, companies that appear non-liberal are far more likely to be perceived as in need of immediate regulation, something that has thus far eluded the social media giant. The release this summer of ‘The Circle’, a dystopian tale of an archetypal tech giant based on Dave Egger’s book, will likely exacerbate public pressure on regulating such conglomerates, and the nefarious idea of Palmer Luckey using his newly acquired wealth for clandestine political influence would have troubled those within the higher echelons of Facebook’s hierarchy.
Additionally, VR is now at the ‘trough of disillusionment’ stage of its hype cycle, where the evangelic events of 2014-2016 have given way to the sobering realities of a Christmas season that saw both Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PSVR under deliver in sales. The thinking of major tech companies therefore is that Virtual Reality may have to go back to the research and development stage for a while before it is ready for prime time.
Founders being ousted from their company after investment and acquisitions has a long history. Steve Jobs left Apple mid 80s following a power struggle with the newly-appointed CEO before his triumphant return in the late 90s. Luckey will certainly not be the last to befall this fate. However, his enthusiasm for the technology and the halo-effect as arguably the first VR Rockstar means he will not be short of job offers from other institutions in the field. However, as the technology that propelled him to fame goes through an existential reconsideration of its short-term commercial potential, Palmer Luckey will have to wait a while longer before his vision of Virtual Reality can be realised.