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Five big questions about Oculus’ CEO shakeup

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#5: Seriously, where is Palmer Luckey?

brendan iribe

Yesterday, virtual reality company Oculus announced that its CEO Brendan Iribe — part of the founding team and one of VR’s most prominent evangelists — is stepping down. Iribe isn’t leaving the company altogether, and he framed the decision as basically wanting to get his hands dirty by working in a newly formed PC VR division. Meanwhile, Oculus is turning a corner after shipping the final piece of its Rift platform, the product it was originally founded around. Along with Iribe’s new team, it’s founding a group to handle mobile VR, which has more mass-market potential than the Rift.

But beyond that simple narrative, the news is tough to interpret. Is Oculus expanding, or just moving people around? Is its parent company Facebook, which is currently helping replace Iribe, swooping in to take a bigger role? Where is Rift inventor Palmer Luckey, who has been incommunicado since his political controversy this fall? Here’s what we know about the change, and the questions we have left.

What’s actually changing at Oculus?

On its face, this sounds like a big reorganization. Oculus is splitting into two divisions: a PC side managed by Iribe, and a mobile side managed by former head of software Jon Thomason. Here’s how Iribe describes the PC side:

Facebook is committed to working on VR for the long term, which means building the next great computing platform that allows people to experience anything with anyone and connects the world in bold new ways.

Changing the world on that scale has required us to also scale Oculus at warp speed. With our growth and product strategy, we’ve decided to establish new PC and mobile VR groups to be more focused, strengthen development and accelerate our roadmap.

Symbolically, that’s a big deal for Oculus. The Rift has always been its core product, but its midrange Gear VR headset — which is powered by a Samsung phone — is much cheaper and sells better. Now, it’s emphasizing that it won’t be giving up either one: mobile VR will get the honor of a full division in the company, while desktop VR will keep pushing the cutting edge.

Practically, though, Oculus’ big players seem to be doing the same thing as before. CTO John Carmack was a key part of the Gear VR team, and he’s still focusing on mobile. Michael Abrash, the far-thinking industry veteran known for his long speeches on creating the Matrix, is still leading research under Iribe. VP of product Nate Mitchell, who showed up at The Verge’s CES trailer with a taped-up prototype headset in 2013, is still working on the Rift. Despite the talk of scaling, we don’t know how much (if any) Oculus is growing.

And if you think a whole lot of things are getting grouped under “PC VR” — well, you’re right, and that’s our next question.

What does the PC virtual reality division really do?

Iribe’s group handles “pushing the state of VR forward with Rift, research, and computer vision.” Effectively, “PC VR” seems to be a shorthand for any cutting-edge tech, much of which will probably be very different from today’s tethered VR. Computer vision, for instance, is a major factor in building self-contained headsets like the Santa Cruz prototype, an Oculus research project announced earlier this year. Santa Cruz, though, arguably has more in common with mobile headsets than the Oculus Rift, even if it’s not using a smartphone.

If PC VR is Oculus’ research and high-end VR wing, then mobile VR could well be its mass-market consumer division. We already know it covers the Samsung Gear VR, currently Oculus’ only mobile VR headset. But in the long term, projects like Santa Cruz could get moved over when they’re out of the R&D phase.

Who will be Oculus’ new leader, and why won’t they be a CEO?

The biggest takeaway from this reorganization isn’t the roles that existing executives will be filling, but the fact that someone new will be calling the shots at Oculus — and that they won’t be doing it with a title like CEO. Instead, we’ll see “a new leader for the Oculus team,” who will presumably answer to Facebook.

So far, Oculus has publicly operated as a separate entity from Facebook, with its own corporate structure. Now, it looks more like a subdivision of its parent company, and it’s not clear whether Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer will bring in another leader who will act as a figurehead the way Iribe did.

Why would he choose not to? One possible answer: because Mark Zuckerberg himself wants to start taking a more active role in the VR industry. Oculus has repeatedly described itself as a gaming-first company, but if Facebook is serious about virtual reality, then it will have to start moving out of that world.

What’s the scope of Oculus now?

Besides its hardware and research groups, Oculus has two content divisions: Oculus Studios, which helps fund VR games like Chronos and Superhot, and Oculus Story Studio, which makes interactive films like the Emmy-winning Henry or upcoming Dear Angelica. Neither one is directly tied to mobile or desktop platforms, and we don’t know exactly how they fit into this new organizational structure.

If Oculus gets closer to Facebook, that also recasts its relationship with Facebook’s independent VR social team, currently led by game developer Mike Booth. We doubt they’d merge completely, but the lines could keep blurring — and Zuckerberg or other Facebook figures could become more closely involved in both.

Where is Palmer Luckey?

Shortly before Oculus’ annual developer conference in October, Palmer Luckey became persona non grata for funding a pro-Trump “shitposting” group. But although he’s been almost entirely invisible since then, Oculus has consistently confirmed that Luckey is still working at the company, and a spokesperson now says he’ll be moving to a new role.

Luckey’s position at the company has always been vague, so his new job title could well be “VP of sitting quietly in the corner, reading Ready Player One.” That said, it would be a waste of his enthusiasm and expertise. If Iribe is moving to the PC team in part because it will let him focus on development, it’s plausible that Luckey will also be taking a more concrete tinkering role behind the scenes.

Of course, Trump’s win puts Luckey in a stronger position, and also puts him in the company of another big Silicon Valley figure: Peter Thiel, a Facebook board member and advisor for Trump’s transition team. Although Thiel hasn’t expressed much interest in virtual reality, he’s notoriously fond of dystopian tech moonshots. So while I’m not going to come right out and say that the next-generation Oculus Rift will be a pacification device for Peter Thiel’s plebeian blood-thralls on a seasteading version of Galt’s Gulch... well, I’m not ruling it out, either.