Virtual reality’s boy wonder draws fire at Facebook trial
The young entrepreneur credited as the brains behind Facebook Inc.’s virtual reality headset was accused in court of betraying a company that had worked with him to display the technology at a trade show.
Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, whose startup was bought by the social media giant for about $2 billion in 2014 when he was 21, didn’t dispute that he used software developed by ZeniMax Media Inc. to show the prototype for his headset to investors in a California hotel room two years earlier. That was shortly after ZeniMax had demonstrated the device publicly at a Los Angeles video game expo with Luckey’s permission.
But in testimony Wednesday before a Dallas federal jury, Luckey denied ZeniMax’s claims that he violated a non-disclosure agreement he signed after the convention that barred him from sharing secrets about how the device works. He said that in showing the headset to the investors he relied only on “executable code” that didn’t reveal the underlying proprietary source code.
“I didn’t take confidential code,” Luckey said. “I ran it and demonstrated it through the headset. It is not true I took the code.”
ZeniMax is trying to show that it did the heavy lifting to develop the software and hardware for the Rift, alleging that Oculus recruited one of it star designers and purloined its intellectual property. Facebook and the Oculus executives named in the lawsuit deny wrongdoing and say ZeniMax’s claims are “fantasy.”
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Rockville, Maryland-based ZeniMax alleged in its lawsuit that Oculus covered up its tracks by plying the media with a “completely false” tale that Luckey invented the technology for the Rift while tinkering in his parents’ garage in southern California.
Luckey’s lawyer sought Wednesday to convince jurors that the origin story behind the device is for real.
Luckey, who was home-schooled, was the kind of kid who become deeply interested in lasers and computers by age 9 and whose appetite for Nuts and Volts magazine and academic research eventually led to his doing student work on virtual reality at a University of Southern California lab, according to testimony.
He started building his headset in 2009, aiming to feature a wide field of view while keeping the cost reasonable, and posted photos of a prototype online in 2010. His lawyer, Beth Wilkinson, pointed out to the jury that was two years before Luckey started working with John Carmack, whose migration from ZeniMax to Oculus is at the heart of the lawsuit.
ZeniMax claims that Carmack, a creator of blockbuster video games Doom and Quake, was responsible for the breakthroughs that transformed the Rift from a “primitive” headset into a “powerful immersive virtual reality experience.”
Carmack acknowledged in testimony last week that he copied computer files containing work he did at ZeniMax when he left the company and went to work for Oculus in 2013 as its chief technology officer. He denied using the material in his work for Oculus and credited Luckey with developing an “elegantly simple” prototype that evolved into the Rift headset, which began shipping in March for $599.
Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s co-founder and chief executive officer, spent five hours on the witness stand Tuesday and denied that the technology for the Rift was stolen.
Zuckerberg said he never heard of ZeniMax before it sued Oculus in May 2014, about two months after Facebook announced that it would buy Luckey’s startup. He said it’s common for companies to “come out of the woodwork” and make claims following an acquisition.
Facebook has distanced itself from Luckey in recent months, after a report that he was financing a group creating anti-Hillary Clinton memes for the internet ahead of the U.S. presidential election. Luckey apologized in a Sept. 23 Facebook post for how his actions may have negatively affected those connected to Oculus, and didn’t attend the company’s Oculus Connect conference to avoid being a “distraction.”
Luckey was ranked 22nd on Forbes’ 2016 list of America’s richest entrepreneurs under 40 with an estimated net worth of $730 million.The case is ZeniMax Media Inc. v. Oculus VR Inc., 3:14-cv-01849, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Texas (Dallas).
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