The prototypes added and dropped features as they went. The PR1, for instance, had a motor from an Aura Interactor embedded on the back, but Luckey found the force feedback too painful, and didn't carry the tweak over to future models. The PR3, PR4 and PR5 all had wireless capabilities, but it took a backpack to lug around the necessary tech. This too, was nixed. Luckey revised his design as he went, sharing his progress with like-minded modders on online forums.
"The PR6 was the first one that I never got around to releasing a public write up of; I just made it," Palmer explains. "That was the one I ended up sending to [id Software's John] Carmack and ended up calling the Rift. He still has what would be called the PR6."
Carmack took that headset to E3 2011, garnering attention from not only the public, but from a trio of industry veterans that would help Luckey build Oculus VR into what it is today: Brendan Iribe, Michael Antonov and Nate Mitchell.
"We were actually introduced by a mutual friend of Brendan and Palmer," Mitchell remembers. "As soon as we saw a demo, it really became clear that we had to invest in this thing ... We helped Palmer reboot the Kickstarter, and pretty shortly afterwards everyone joined the company."
Iribe, Antonov and Mitchell have some experience with fledgling startups. Iribe helped Gaikai catch Sony's attention, and before that, he worked with Mitchell and Antonov at Scaleform, which was eventually bought up by Autodesk.
"Brendan and Mike worked at Scaleform for a long time," recounts Mitchell. "They really built it up from the beginning to what it was: a multimillion-dollar company. I think with Oculus, it's sort of the same thing -- we really want to change the way people play games."
Given the team's success at building up young companies that were later absorbed into larger corporations, we wonder aloud if Oculus was destined to follow a similar path. Mitchell assures us it wasn't, citing the company's vision of creating a complete platform for virtual reality development. Luckey chimes in with agreement.
"I have no visions of selling at this point," he says. "My goal was never to make a company or to sell a company, it was to make virtual reality and -- later, after I realized it was going to happen -- make it available to everyone."
For now, "everyone" means developers.
"We really believe at Oculus that hardware is really only as good as the content it runs," Mitchell explains. Putting Luckey's stereoscopic ski goggles in the hands of game developers is key to the Rift's success.
Distribution is the name of the game, and it's why we dropped by Oculus' offices in the first place: the company's first professionally manufactured VR development kit is finally ready for consumption. With adjustable optics, a more supportive headband and a prominent 7-inch display, it easily outshines its hand-built predecessor. More importantly, it will soon be available to anyone with a few hundred dollars and an interest in VR.
"We're fulfilling all the Kickstarter rewards and then moving on to pre-orders," Mitchell explains. "That's going to start very soon, mid-March."
Folks who missed the bandwagon won't have to wait long either, he says, explaining that Oculus is building more development kits than it expects to sell, specifically to have stock ready to ship at a moment's notice. Oculus' engineers will spend the next few months fleshing out the HMD's SDK, aiming to give developers the tools they need to build great VR experiences.
"We've already got Unreal Engine 3 and Unity integration, but beyond that we want to add Mac support, Linux support and we want to continuously improve our feature set," Mitchell tells us. "Things like sensor fusion, predictive tracking, head and neck modeling ... All this stuff is going to get better over time."
More hardware is on the way too; Luckey tells us the Rift Development Kit and its companion SDK are only the beginning. "It needs to be an entire platform, not just a developer kit with an SDK," he says. "We're experimenting with haptics, different motion-control devices and different input devices, but it's really hard to say where we're going."
The founder goes on to explain that developer feedback will dictate what sort of features we'll see in the eventual consumer model.
With any luck, that input will start rolling in soon: Valve is preparing to update its popular free-to-play shooter, Team Fortress 2 with a Rift-compatible VR mode, openly describing the update as an experiment. Valve's Joe Ludwig says that the TF2's robust community is ideal for testing out the new technology, and both companies are eager to see how the community reacts.
The Rift still has a lot of growing to do before it's ready for store shelves. Luckey says it still needs to be lighter, and more comfortable to wear. Oculus hopes to find a smaller, higher-resolution display for the consumer version, lightening the user's load while increasing visual fidelity. Unfortunately, our hosts wouldn't hazard a guess on availability.
"A big part of it is waiting for great game content to be available," explains Mitchell. "We really want to deliver the best experience, and if it takes a little bit longer to get there, then that's what we'll do. Game developers will be able to tell us when it's ready."
Mark Hearn contributed to this report.