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ZeniMax claims the Oculus Rift was built on stolen technology

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The messy legal battle over consumer VR

ZeniMax filed suit against Oculus VR in May 2014, claiming that the Facebook-owned company misappropriated trade secrets after benefitting from years of ZeniMax’s research and experimentation with virtual reality technology.

An amended complaint, filed on Aug. 16, goes even further by directly accusing id Software co-founder and Oculus chief technology officer John Carmack of stealing technology from ZeniMax.

"For many years, ZeniMax invested tens of millions of dollars in research and development, including research into virtual reality and immersive technologies. In 2011 and 2012, John Carmack, a singularly experienced and highly proficient ZeniMax programmer who was at that time Technical Director for ZeniMax’s Texas-based subsidiary, id Software, conducted research to address technological issues associated with virtual reality," the complaint reads. "Carmack and other ZeniMax employees conducted that research at ZeniMax offices, on ZeniMax computers, and using ZeniMax resources."

The complaint also says that Carmack’s copy of the Oculus Rift prototype, given to him by Oculus founder Palmer Luckey, was improved upon in terms of both software and hardware by ZeniMax employees using ZeniMax hardware and know-how, including work done by John Carmack himself.

This is where things get tricky; the amended filing now directly accuses Carmack of theft.

"In the summer of 2013, Carmack's employment contract with ZeniMax expired," the document alleges. "On August 1, 2013, Carmack became Oculus's Chief Technology Officer (‘CTO’). Before leaving ZeniMax, Carmack secretly and illegally copied thousands of documents containing ZeniMax's intellectual property from his computer at ZeniMax to a USB storage device which he wrongfully took with him to Oculus. After he had joined Oculus, Carmack returned to ZeniMax's premises and took without permission a customized tool that Carmack and other ZeniMax personnel had developed for work on virtual reality."

Oculus was acquired by Facebook approximately two years later for $2 billion in cash and stock. This confirmed the "enormous value of the intellectual property that ZeniMax had created, and that Oculus, Luckey, [Oculus CEO Brendan] Iribe, and Carmack had taken," according to the document.

What does Carmack say?

John Carmack himself told a characteristically frank version of this story from his own point of view at QuakeCon in 2012. You can watch the entirety of the speech in the video below, with the discussion of virtual reality hardware beginning around an hour into the presentation.

Much of Carmack’s earliest experiments in virtual reality were using or modifying existing head-mounted displays, such as the Sony HMZ personal viewer. He had nice things to say about the hardware in some respects, but was also skeptical that the HMZ display would ever be a good fit for gaming. Carmack modified the HMZ hardware and even showed some of his work to Sony, who later canceled the project in order to focus on virtual reality.

"The images looked good, they were still small … the latency was not good on there," Carmack said, describing his own efforts in making an effective head-mounted display using existing hardware. "I was starting to pick around at a few things, but I was reaching sort of the limit to what I could justify as John screwing around with a little hobby project on this, we have big projects to be working on."

The Rift was also lighter, with a wider field of view than anything Carmack was working on at the time.

This was around the time that Doom 3: BFG Edition was coming to fruition, as was the challenge of getting the press excited about what amounts to an improved re-release of an existing game. Showing the title on VR hardware would certainly do so, and Carmack talked about the original plan of showing the game on Sony’s head-mounted display.

At this point in the presentation Carmack has spent over an hour discussing his own experiments and work in virtual reality, covering a wide range of potential solutions, before he had met or heard of Palmer Luckey.

He met Luckey online, and convinced the young inventor to share the first prototype of the Rift hardware, which Carmack described as being "really pretty amazing." It also featured a number of breakthroughs that Carmack learned from while adding VR support to Doom 3: BFG Edition. The Rift was also lighter, with a wider field of view than anything Carmack was working on at the time.

"At that time, the Rift was a crude prototype," the complaint alleges. "Little more than a display panel, it lacked a head mount, virtual reality-specific software, integrated motion sensors, and other critical features and basic capabilities needed to create a viable product. Luckey did not have the expertise or training to develop the features and capabilities needed for a viable VR product, nor did he know how to create software to make the VR demonstrations."

ZeniMax goes on to say in its amended complaint that Lucky was propped up by Oculus as the "brilliant inventor of VR technology" in a "false and fanciful story" disseminated to the press, when instead, it was ZeniMax’s work that helped shape the Rift.

"Luckey lacked the training, expertise, resources or know-how to create commercially viable VR technology, his computer programming skills were rudimentary, and he relied on ZeniMax's computer program code and games to demonstrate the prototype Rift," the complaint says. "Nevertheless, this fraudulent tale was frequently reported in the media as fact. Lucky increasingly and falsely held himself out to the media and the public as the visionary developer of the Rift's VR Technology, which had actually been developed by ZeniMax without any substantial contribution from Luckey."

Carmack’s own account of being impressed by the breakthroughs in the Rift prototype seem to contradict this version of events, even if it’s likely his work enhanced and refined the early version of the hardware.

We’re comparing a legal document from one company with an unguarded, public explanation of when and how certain breakthroughs happened, but two things seem to be clear:

  1. By his own account Carmack had been working on virtual reality technology long before he met Palmer Luckey or touched an Oculus Rift but
  2. The Oculus Rift prototype sent to Carmack included several breakthroughs that aided greatly in the development of consumer VR.

What this means for this particular court case is that it’s likely to be a long, messy trial if both sides don’t decide to settle.