How Palmer Luckey went from selling Oculus Rift to Facebook for $2 billion to building a virtual border wall for Trump

Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images
Picture: Getty Images

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 $US2 billion in 2014. A year after the sale, Forbes estimated his net worth to be $US700 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 defence 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 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 mum who homeschooled Luckey and his three younger sisters.

Getty Images

As a child, Luckey loved to tinker with electronics, building his own computers or gaming devices.

For a while, he became fascinated by lasers and burned a small blind-spot into one of his retinas while experimenting with them.

Getty Images
(Not actually Luckey's eye)

Source: Vanity Fair

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.

Getty Images

Source: LA Times

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?'

Not actually Luckey's display, but a pretty sleek set-up.

Source: Vanity Fair

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.

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.

Michael Seto/Business Insider

Source: Vanity Fair

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.'

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.

Posters and t-shirts that Luckey gave to Kickstarter supporters.

Source: Vanity Fair

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.

Wikimedia Commons and Brian Ach/Getty

Source: Vanity Fair and Crunchbase

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.

Chris Dixon

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.

Brendan Iribe with Mark Zuckerberg

Source: Vanity Fair

The two companies signed a whopping $2 billion acquisition deal in March 2014.

Business Insider

The deal immediately sky-rocketed Luckey's net worth to about $500 million. He was only 21.

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.

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.

Getty Images

Source: Forbes

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.'

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.'


Source: The Telegraph, Forbes

He also drives a 1986 GMC van that reportedly has a red shag carpet inside.

The 24-year-old has a good sense of humour 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.

Luckey was featured on the cover of Time Magazine, cementing him as the face of virtual reality.

Time Magazine

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.'

Nimble America

Source: The Daily Beast

Luckey confirmed he had donated $10,000 to the group, but denied that he had been posting pro-Trump comments on Reddit.

All of that controversy culminated with an announcement from Facebook in late March that Luckey would be leaving the company.

Getty Images

Source: Business Insider

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.'

Source: Business Insider

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.

Getty Images

'We are spending more than ever on defence technology, yet the pace of innovation has been slowing for decades,' Luckey told the Times in a statement. 'We need a new kind of defence company, one that will save taxpayer dollars while creating superior technology to keep our troops and citizens safer.'

Source: The New York Times

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.

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Peter Thiel

Source: The New York Times

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.

An example of a decommissioned nuclear missile silo.

Source: The New York Times

Jillian D'Onfro contributed to an earlier version of this article.

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