Palmer Luckey became tech industry royalty at age 21, when he sold his burgeoning virtual reality company Oculus VR to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion. That fateful decision, while a milestone for virtual reality, is now causing headaches for Luckey, Facebook, and others at the core of a contentious legal battle over the origins of the modern VR movement. Luckey took the stand today in Dallas to testify in the trial alleging he helped Oculus steal trade secrets and violate copyrights owned by ZeniMax Media, the parent company of video game developer id Software.
At the center of the dispute is John Carmack, a legendary programmer and video game creator behind id Software titles Doom and Quake. Carmack, now the chief technology officer at Oculus, worked with Luckey while still employed by ZeniMax to privately demo an early prototype version of Oculus’ Rift headset at the E3 convention in Los Angeles back in 2012. The prototype used id Software’s Doom 3. The hardware also relied on Carmack’s engineering expertise to improve upon Luckey’s work, which first began back in 2009 at the University of Southern California. Notably, ZeniMax mulled over but ultimately did not secure an investment in Oculus during that time period.
During his testimony in court today, Luckey said that while pitching investors with the Rift prototype, he did not violate the non-disclosure agreement he signed with ZeniMax for the E3 demos that would have prohibited him from sharing how the device works outside the company. He also stressed that none of the code used for those demos made its way into future versions of the Rift. “I didn’t take confidential code,” Luckey said, according to Bloomberg. “I ran it and demonstrated it through the headset. It is not true I took the code.” Today also happens to be Luckey’s first public appearance in quite some time, since The Daily Beast revealed his role in funding a pro-Donald Trump online group back in September.
Carmack, who testified last week, has admitted to copying files from ZeniMax computers prior to him joining Oculus in August 2013. However, he too has denied using any of the code originally designed for the E3 demonstrations in future versions of the Rift. Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign, which would go on to raise more than $2.4 million from backers, was first launched in August of 2012. After numerous prototypes, further venture capital funding, and an eventual acquisition by Facebook, Luckey and his team launched the consumer Rift headset in March of last year.
The crux of ZeniMax’s legal argument is that Luckey, a college dropout and tinkerer, could never have taken the idea of a VR headset and brought it to fruition without the help of Carmack and the resources provided to him by ZeniMax. During his testimony, ZeniMax’s lawyers questioned Luckey’s lack of a college degree and legal understanding of NDAs, according to Gizmodo. To counter that characterization, lawyers for Facebook have used Luckey’s unorthodox home schooling and interest in academic research at a young age to prove his boy genius status. At one point, Facebook lawyers pointed to Luckey’s subscription to engineering hobbyist magazine Nuts and Volts, Gizmodo reported.
ZeniMax is seeking $2 billion in damages, and the jury could decide the fate of the case as soon as the end of this week. Facebook, in its role as the parent company of Oculus, has tried to paint ZeniMax as a money-hungry corporation that only began truly caring about VR when Facebook validated the market with its lofty acquisition figure. ZeniMax filed its lawsuit less than two months after Facebook announced its Oculus acquisition. Yesterday, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took the stand. He nonchalantly admitted to not knowing the name ZeniMax and downplayed his disinterest in doing due diligence on Oculus before presenting an acquisition offer.