clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Oculus lawsuit drops Palmer Luckey on stand to defend story of Rift’s inception

Yes, he wore shoes

Palmer Luckey at Minecraft VR event
Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus VR, at an event for Minecraft on Gear VR in March 2016.
Gabrielle Lurie/AFP/Getty Images

Dallas - ZeniMax’s attorneys spent much of the day questioning Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey under oath, seemingly with a singular goal in mind: to fluster the young entrepreneur.

Today’s court proceedings in the $2 billion lawsuit over who developed the technology behind the Oculus Rift VR headset opened with ZeniMax lawyers grilling Luckey.

Luckey has been an anticipated witness in this ongoing trial. Diverging from his trademark flip flops or even yesterday’s pink tie, he donned a business-serious navy suit with black dress shoes. A bright red tie lent a spark to what appeared to be a thoroughly spent man. Luckey’s weariness of the proceedings was apparent as he spent the moments leading up to the start of his testimony simply staring at the water bottle sitting in front of him.

The attorney started his questioning by establishing that Luckey holds no engineering degree—dropping out, in fact, of college—and then built towards the argument that Luckey could not have built the Rift without the essential aid of current Oculus CTO and former id Software CTO John Carmack. While neither side contested the idea that Carmack was not at any point involved with the Rift’s early development, this would have then allegedly left Oculus in the position of having to break an NDA signed by Luckey regarding proprietary information owned by ZeniMax.

A series of emails between Carmack and Luckey presented in court today, provided a history that was meant to suggest that Luckey at once misrepresented who was aware of the NDA signed in early June 2012, the timeline of the formation of Oculus as a California-based LLC, and who, if anyone, from ZeniMax was present at several closed-door demonstrations of the Rift. The emails led ZeniMax to the conclusion that Luckey skirted the binding contents of the NDA.

oculus pc 2 Oculus

That was when both Luckey and the ZeniMax representation seemed to struggle to maintain composure, with the attorney attempting to prove contradictions in the timeline, and Luckey working to provide context and technical clarity to the events in question. Presiding Judge Ed Kinceade went so far as to quell the two when they started talking over one other.

ZeniMax and Luckey were arguing over what specifically fell under the banner of proprietary information and what didn’t. As far as ZeniMax’s attorney was concerned, the Rage-based VR testbed and the Doom 3 BFG Edition demo were both subject to the NDA.

The defense countered that those particular bits of software had entered public knowledge, which would then move any such development out from that clause of the NDA. Carmack’s demonstrations and resulting media coverage were provided as examples of what made the information public knowledge.

The defense also argued that ZeniMax never informed Luckey that he was in violation of the NDA, even after interest for Oculus picked up in 2012. Todd Hoolenshead, then-president of id Software, didn’t even mention the issue when Doom 3 BFG Edition was being used to demo the Rift, the attorney said.

In attempting to refute the doubt that ZeniMax attorney was trying to build around Luckey’s ability to single-handedly create the Rift, the defense also worked through Luckey’s interests and academics. Luckey became interested in engineering by reading a magazine called Nuts & Volts. This interest led him, at about 15 or 16, to begin researching virtual reality, eventually building his first prototype headset in August 2010. Luckey called this PR1 and it featured 90-degree field-of-view, haptic feedback, and a low-latency video controller while also weighing in about six pounds and bearing a $1,000 price tag.

The key point for the defense was that Luckey built this prototype all on his own, almost two years before being contacted by Carmack. Luckey actually built three more prototypes before that, integrating various improvements such as native stereoscopic 3D and position tracking. Oculus lawyers also highlighted that Luckey used different sensors from the Hillcrest sensor, the one that Carmack used in his VR research and development.

While appearing unwieldy and uncomfortable, the fourth prototype, PR4, was also seen and covered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival, three months prior to Carmack’s initial message to Luckey requesting a prototype. It featured both orientation and position tracking for an experimental film called Hunger in Los Angeles created by Nonny de le Pena and utilized tech acquired through USC’s Mixed Reality Lab.

Luckey seemed to regain much of his composure and looked more confident once the defense finished up. Even ensuing cross examinations failed to evoke the same flustered Luckey seen just a few hours prior. He instead answered calmly and deliberately rather than butting heads over trivial matters, such as what is considered the season of Fall.

Late in the afternoon, Luckey stepped down from the stand and Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe stepped up. He seemed much more composed than Luckey. ZeniMax’s attorneys worked to establish that after Iribe’s two past multi-million dollar acquisitions of Scaleform and Gaikai, Iribe’s unawareness of the NDA was either unlikely or irresponsible. This seemed to fit in line with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony yesterday regarding the accelerated timeframe in which the $2 billion deal to acquire Oculus was struck.

Brendan Iribe Oculus
Brendan Iribe Oculus
Harriet Taylor/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

Next, the attorney detailed an incredible deluge of emails and text messages to illustrate how often Iribe and other key Oculus employees made contact with Carmack regarding HMD development and the Oculus SDK.

Judge Kinkeade stopped the testimony several times to have terms and phrases, such as shaders and source code, explained.

Frustration seemed to only grow as the testimony continued. Iribe attempted to clarify the differences between executables and source code as well as SDKs and operating systems and shaders while the majority of the courtroom attempted to wrap their heads around technical nuances.

Through all of this, Iribe insisted that everything that went into Oculus’ software had nothing to do with anything they ever received from Carmack and id Software. The defense pointed out an exchange between Carmack and Oculus Chief Software Architect Michael Antonov, in which Carmack said that Oculus’ method of “quarternion calculations” was better than what he had been using.

The defense concluded the day with a series of straightforward questions asked of Iribe. Did Oculus ever receive the Doom 3 BFG Edition source code? No. Does Oculus have shaders in its SDK? Yes. Who wrote those shaders? Oculus engineers.

The trial is expected to continue another two weeks with Iribe’s testimony wrapping up tomorrow morning.

Today’s testimony by Luckey was the first time the young creator of VR has spoken publicly since it came to light in September that he had been secretly spending money on funding an unofficial Donald Trump group that “shitposts” anti-Hillary Clinton memes and images.

In December, after announcing that then-CEO Brendan Iribe was being shifted to lead PC development, Oculus told Polygon that news would be coming soon about Luckey’s role at the company. That has yet to be announced.

In the trial Yesterday, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg was grilled about his company’s seemingly rushed acquisition of Oculus for $2 billion. And last week, Carmack was questioned about his decision to copy some code from id Software computers before leaving the company to work at Facebook with Palmer.

Rockville, Maryland-based ZeniMax sued Oculus in May 2014, alleging that the VR startup misappropriated trade secrets in the development of the Oculus Rift headset. The lawsuit was filed weeks after ZeniMax publicly accused Carmack of providing technology to Oculus. Oculus has said it will disprove those claims.

According to ZeniMax’s complaint, Oculus co-founder and Rift inventor Palmer Luckey — along with a half a dozen ex-ZeniMax employees who are now working at Oculus — are building the Rift based on years and millions of dollars’ worth of ZeniMax’s research and copyrighted code.

Oculus, which is now owned by Facebook, denies the allegations, saying the lawsuit came to a head after Facebook purchased the company and as a “chance for a quick payout.”

The trial kick off was bookended by twin salvos of accusatory statements from ZeniMax and Oculus.

The history of Luckey, the Oculus Rift, Carmack and ZeniMax-owned id Software, is a complicated and entwined one. You can read more about it in our previous coverage of the ongoing suit.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon