The recently released The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality will provide the backdrop for author Blake Harris and his conversation with tech entrepreneur Joe Chen, who was one of the first Oculus employees.
The discussion is presented in collaboration with the City of Burbank’s Tech Talk Series and will be held Thursday evening, February 28, at the Buena Vista branch of the Burbank Public Library.
Harris’ book talks about “how a teenager, Palmer Luckey, invented a more immersive and affordable VR device while living and working in a trailer that was parked in the driveway of his parents’ house in Long Beach,” explained Burbank Librarian Hubert Kozak.
Luckey named the VR device the Oculus Rift and a bidding war ensued for the new, accessible and affordable technology. Ultimately, Oculus was bought by Facebook, which has since released a series of the VR devices.
“Industries in the gaming community were the first to spot the potential and were wowed by the device, tech financiers wanted to get in on the action as well, and a few years later the company Luckey founded was bought by Facebook for over 2 billion dollars,” explained Kozak.
“Gamers were the first consumers, but the device resuscitated and then galvanized VR technology and applications. VR is now being used in training simulations, medicine, therapies, virtual tours, all kinds of diagnostic applications and it’s use continues to expand.”
“This book is a look at how a new tech invention makes the journey from prototype to viable consumer product, a behind the scenes look at what it takes to do this, and it’s a story filled with a lot of drama and intrigue,” continued Kozak. “It follows a naive young tech inventor as he swims in the shark infested waters of big money and high stakes technology development.”
“Like most people who have tried a modern day virtual reality headset, my immediate thought after trying it for the first time was ‘Wow! I’ve just seen the future!'” commented Harris. “But, as we know, an exciting product doesn’t necessarily equal a successful product, so I was very interested in getting to know the folks behind the scenes at Oculus and looking at this story from a business standpoint – tracing the journey from idea to prototype to product.”
“That said, business stories can often be dry; so it was incredibly helpful to me as a writer to learn about (and then reveal to readers) the backstory and behind-the-scenes journey of Oculus founder, Palmer Luckey, whose rise from teenager dreamer to successful inventor/entrepreneur made for an incredible modern day ‘American Dream’ tale.”
“I like to write character-driven true life stories that can be accessible to anybody; meaning that even if you don’t know the first thing about VR, I still want the story to resonate with you,” Harris explained. “The key to that, I believe, is incredible access, and it took me about 14 months to gain the access from Oculus and Facebook to tell this story in the way that I had hoped.”
“That access began in February 2016 and continued until April 2018. So (spoiler alert!) Palmer Luckey was fired in the middle of that time; and, as readers will see, completely disrupted the story that I thought I was telling – but, in the end, made for a more interesting and urgent story (especially with how much of our digital lives are controlled by Facebook).”
“For the most part, I would say that the major players were forthcoming,” Harris also said. “Perhaps not so much initially at first; but, in the end, I spent 3.5 years working on this story and was able to develop a great rapport with many of those involved.”
“That said, I would note that after the unexpected firing of Palmer Luckey, many of the players who had been very forthright with me ended up changing their tune – either by speaking with me less; or, in some unfortunate cases, outright lying to me.”
Tech investor and entrepreneur Chen will interview Harris for the Burbank Tech Talk event. Chen has cofounded a new company, Anduril, with Luckey.
‘Throughout my writing the book, Joe was a constant source of inspiration, humor and fair-and-balanced perspective,” said Harris. “It also became clear to me, very early on, that Joe has a get-it-done-attitude that is so critical to helping a young startup thrive.”
What does Harris think of the current impact VR has had in the world and where does he see the technology going forward?
“I’ll be honest and say that when I started working on this book 3.5 years ago, I anticipated that virtual reality would be more successful than it is now,” Harris said. “Not by a lot – I always thought it would be a relatively slow adoption – but I thought there would still be strong hype for VR amongst consumers and increasing investment from content-makers.”
“Since the release of the major VR headers in 2016 (Oculus, HTC and Sony), the excitement and momentum around this technology has certainly slowed down. But I’m still very bullish about the long-term impact of virtual reality.”
“I believe it’ll still take 5-10 years to really reach a mainstream crowd, but in the meantime I think it’ll continue to do well with gamers and, in the interim, I think there will be great value in using VR for training simulations in the enterprise space (as well as, hopefully, the education space),” he added.
The Burbank Tech Talks Series is composed of networking events, speaker summits and series, including a Pitch Fest, explained Marissa Minor, Economic Development Analyst with the Community Development Department.
“Fostering the entrepreneurial community is a key component of our City’s Economic Development strategy as we seek to attract and engage new thinkers and innovators in Burbank,” she said. “The Burbank Tech Talk Series is one way that we support this innovative and growing community.”
“Our goal is to ensure that our companies can compete in today’s marketplace, and we are hopeful that events like the Burbank Tech Talks will continue to provide businesses with insight and networking opportunities for the future,” Minor also said.
Harris and Chen discuss The History of the Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution That Swept Virtual Reality on Thursday, February 28, at 7:00 p.m.
The Buena Vista Branch of the Burbank Public Library is located at 300 N. Buena Vista Street in Burbank. The program is free to the public and plenty of free parking is available on site.