Among journalists, no one has gotten inside the story of the Oculus Rift as much as Blake Harris, who has just published The History of The Future: Oculus, Facebook, and the Revolution, a book about Oculus founder Palmer Luckey and the creation of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
In part one of our coverage, we published a transcript of a talk that Harris gave at a book reading in Mountain View, California. This is part two of the conversation, where I interviewed Harris extensively about how he did his research, his interaction with Facebook, and his close relationship with Luckey.
I covered the news about Oculus early on, writing stories on a regular basis. But Harris tried to soak in the whole story over four years, and the result is a 500-page book that talks about the insider view of the stories and events that I covered.
Harris spoke to Luckey almost daily during the four years it took to write the book. And he had exclusive access to executives at Oculus and Facebook — until Luckey got fired in March 2017. After that, Harris lost his access, but he was still able to finish the book.
In the book, we see the role that CEO Mark Zuckerberg played in Luckey’s departure, as well as the fraying of the relationship among the top leaders. We asked Facebook for a comment to some of the stories in the book, but did not receive a response.
I think this one was even better than Harris’ first book — Console Wars: Sega, Nintendo and the Battle that defined a generation — which came out in 2014 and chronicled the fight between Sega and Nintendo in the 1990s as Sega stole a march on Nintendo with the launch of the Sega Genesis. The book was written in a dramatic way, and it was licensed for a film adaptation by Hollywood directors Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I wondered about your journalistic enterprise of doing this, how you approached it. From doing my own books [on the Xbox and Xbox 360], I had some interesting experiences as well. On the first book I had more than 200 questions for Microsoft when I was fact-checking and otherwise making sure what I had was correct. They chose to answer none of those questions. It was funny. On the second book, I worked with Microsoft again to get access and all that, and they answered every question I had.
Blake Harris: What would you attribute that to? Regret from the first time around, or just different people involved?
GamesBeat: Maybe regret? I think they knew that some stories were going to get written from a certain point of view, or some facts would be relayed from a certain point of view. They wanted to make sure that, the second time, they were more engaged.
I wanted to ask you generally, then, what was your working relationship with Oculus and Facebook like over time? You summarized some of the big points in your talk, but did you have certain ground rules going in as you pitched it to them?
Harris: I’ll be pretty broad about this. After Console Wars, at either E3 or Comic-Con, I was talking with Tom Kalinske and Al Wilson and Michael Kiraz, who’s the son of someone mentioned in the book. At that point I was thinking about doing my next book about Rovio, the company that did Angry Birds. Tom said, “No, you should do something better than that.” I was also very interested in VR and Oculus, but I didn’t think I could get access to that. Tom just said, “No, definitely do that.” Michael, who was at Nyko at the time, he knew Palmer and offered to introduce me.
I was introduced to Palmer in July 2014. I proposed the idea of getting interviews and writing a book. He replied, at that time, that several journalists had reached out with similar requests, and in his opinion Oculus hadn’t accomplished anything yet. They now had to go from selling a dev kit to a mainstream product. But at the same time, he liked Console Wars, as did some other people there, so he was at least open to a conversation.
We had that conversation over the next five months. I went out to Menlo Park in December 2014. I was hoping to leave there with access, but that didn’t happen. It ended up taking 14 months after that to get access from Oculus and Facebook. Even at that point, what I was asking for was them letting me speak with the main players and setting up interviews. But they ended up giving me exclusive access, or at least choosing to work with me and not work with any other authors.
The way it was set up was that they would introduce me to anybody that I wanted to talk to at the company, and it was up to that person whether they wanted to speak with me or not. Then, after the introduction was made, I could have my own relationship to them. Some people I spoke with every day or every few days. Some people I only spoke with once. There were no parameters set on the relationship, which was good. I could ask anything I wanted.
I assumed that part of that, to some degree, is because as with Console Wars and everything else I’ve ever written in non-fiction, I told them that I would be planning to share most if not all of what I wrote based on information that they gave me and give them a chance to review. I was very clear that that didn’t mean I would do what they told me to after review, but I would welcome their input. That helps with fact-checking. I’ll make any changes of a factual nature.
That continued for two years. It was February 9, 2016 that was the first day I had my interviews with Brendan and Nate. I think it was February 10, early February of 2018, when I had what turned out to be my last trip to Menlo Park to interview Ed Bosworth, Hugo Barra, Max Cohen, and a few others. Part of the purpose of that trip was, I had recently shared with them the first 60 percent of the book. I big part of the trip was to get feedback in addition to those interviews I had. I also met in a group meeting with Brendan, Nate, their head of comms, their legal team, and a bunch of others. Then I had follow-up calls with them.
Obviously the second half of the book has more of the stuff that they aren’t happy to see published. The first half of the book, they went through all of it and let me know about anything they believed was factually incorrect. Then I did follow-ups to confirm that or not. I think I talked about the dissolution of the relationship before, but I’m happy to go into any more detail you want.
GamesBeat: It sounds like you were comfortable with sharing what you wrote ahead of time because of that rule that you really—it was still up to you as to what got written. It’s not as if they were allowed to have some kind of prior restraint on you.
Harris: Yeah. To that point, I very specifically—what comes to mind is when I had a call with Nate Mitchell with a couple of hours. He asked me if I could please not include him and Palmer being in the car with Jack McCauley as Jack was making some racist comments. Nate was embarrassed that he didn’t reprimand Jack. I felt that was important to include, but I asked him, “Are all these statements accurate?” He said, “Yes, but it’s not a good look for me.” I said, “Okay, I’ll consider not including it,” but I felt like it was relevant, so that was in there. That happened with a lot of things.
GamesBeat: There was the notion that you had to reconstruct some things. The firsthand, secondhand, and transposed sort of note that’s in the beginning.
Harris: I’m pretty disappointed by how that ended up being printed in the book. That went through legal, and it was really pared down to limit liability as much as possible. I think the most significant point is “transposed” in particular, because I did change my approach after Console Wars.
I might have said this during the signing, but there are obviously 15 or 20 percent of people who didn’t like the dialogue aspect of Console Wars. I still stand behind that choice. I wish I had mentioned it in the front of Console Wars — that I collaborated with these people, that I wasn’t just making stuff up off the top of my head. But there was some validity—I can understand the concern. And because this book was so much more recent, because there were email records, and because I recorded every conversation I had with people, I felt it was important to try to do better.
The rule I had for myself was that every line of dialogue in the book is something that I have in an audio file. It’s either a first-person recollection or a second-person recollection. All of it is verbatim from these people. That was very much a documentary-style format, where you can have someone remembering their own experience or telling a story. It’s always in their own words, as opposed to my words.
GamesBeat: Dialogue is a better way to tell a story in your view, then? You don’t want the “according to so-and-so in an interview he gave to Rolling Stone”—you don’t want that mucking up the text and making it less readable.
Harris: As someone who’s spent several years doing documentary work, I’m very much a believer in the idea that how somebody says something is almost as interesting as what they say. It’s also about what they choose to say. A lot of times Palmer says things that seem to come out of left field, or he makes weird connections. To me that’s central to understanding him, and there are similar cases with other characters. Particularly, anything that’s longer than one sentence in dialogue, I’d say that’s almost definitely from the source themselves. There’s a lot of good Palmer rants and Brendan talking in Brendan’s style.
The dialogue is critically important. It’s how we interact, and especially, it’s how we remember how we interacted. Body language is a big part of it, but most of the time people remember the words in our interactions more than anything.
GamesBeat: Having lived through some of this, I can see that there’s a lot that’s left out. What’s here feels like Palmer’s story. Did you view it that way, that whatever you wanted to include or not include in this had a lot to do with the main character of the story?
Harris: I think that’s fair. I would expand it to say, though—I remember the first time I met with Brendan in February 2016. He asked me, outside of his office, “What’s your vision for this book?” It was very early, but at the time I said I imagined it as a marriage between Palmer and Brendan, and by Brendan I also meant Nate and the rest of the Scaleform mafia. I wanted the four of them, or in particular Palmer and Brendan, to be the prism of the story.
That said, without Brendan [Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR]—he couldn’t weigh in, and I couldn’t have his feedback, or even him talking about some of the events at the very end of the book. I didn’t have his feedback on the second half of the book. I probably defaulted more to Palmer’s perspective, as well as for other reasons you can guess. I think this stuff is pretty interesting from his perspective. But I did want to tell a lot of the story from Brendan and Palmer’s perspectives and what they felt was important.
GamesBeat: You explained at the reading about the loss of access at a certain point. Were you talking to Palmer just about every day to that point? Do you feel like you really got to know him, what kind of person he was?
Harris: I’ve spoken to Palmer almost every day for the past three years. You form a close relationship with someone. Other than my wife, I don’t think I could say that about anyone. I do think I know him very well. I think I know him better than almost anyone in the world, other than his girlfriend or his family.
But at the same time, he’s not the only person I was speaking with. He was probably the only person I spoke with every day, but there were other people I spoke with every couple days, whose names I will not mention, because they’re still at the company and they probably don’t want it known that they continue talking to me.
I guess the point I want to make is that I do think I know Palmer extremely well. That level of access was critical to telling the story in a successful way. But given that approach, I was always very wary that my story might be slanted by his perspective or my own personal bias, unconsciously or consciously. I tried to put as many checks into place as possible to avoid that happening, and really think critically and get frequent feedback from other people at the company.
GamesBeat: Did you feel like he was misunderstood, like he got a raw deal not only from Facebook, but from the public?
Harris: Yeah, obviously. I think he was treated very unfairly by Facebook and treated very unfairly by the media. But at the same time, I think he made more mistakes than he admits that he made. Just the fact that I think he made a mistake to donate to Nimble America in the fashion that he did, without doing any due diligence–I understand why he did so anonymously, but the idea of fashioning a persona, the nimble rich man persona, around it–whether or not he actually wrote the words, he did essentially endorse those words. That was in poor taste. I don’t think he necessarily feels that he made a mistake in that regard.
All that said, I don’t think his mistake warrants the reaction. I think that was based on misinformation. I especially don’t think it warrants the way he was treated by Facebook, and in particular I’m shocked by the fact that Zuckerberg forced him to write a statement supporting a candidate other than the one that he actually planned to support.
GamesBeat: I was curious about that. Did Facebook ever respond to that and say, “No, we didn’t do that”? You say that very authoritatively, and so I wanted to check that if they ever disputed it.
Harris: I’ve actually been surprised by how few people–fortunately people have accepted this as the truth, which is good, because I believe that this is the truth after years of research. But it is such an enormous claim. I mean, it’s illegal. It’s very unethical. This is something that I was hesitant to write unless I had really good sourcing on it. I know the lawyers at Harper Collins felt the same way. I ended up getting emails, some of which I got after my final draft, but before publication, to try to bring something to the lawyers.
That’s a long-winded way of saying that in the second edition of the book, I’m going to have even more from the actual emails. But there is an email from Facebook’s general counsel to Palmer’s employment attorney saying that Mark himself drafted this and the details are critical. The other thing is, that could all be true, but then maybe the version that Mark drafted was very similar to the version that Palmer drafted, even though I had heard otherwise. I was finally able to get a copy of Palmer’s early drafts, and they bear no resemblance to what was eventually posted. I needed to be very careful about that. I feel very confident.
To answer your question about Facebook, initially–part of the reason that the relationship fell apart was because I had a conversation–I was told the same thing by several people. They all told me that it was Palmer’s choice to say he voted for Gary Johnson. But they also told me that in the context that they didn’t even know he was a Trump supporter, that he was always a Gary Johnson supporter. In particular, in one conversation, I replied to them and said I knew for a fact that he was a Trump supporter. I talked about it with him frequently to try to understand why he felt that way. That really threw them off. They made a lot of comments that were not true with regards to that, and then they never responded one way or the other.
GamesBeat: There are quite a few mysteries still that surround the firing. I thought it was interesting when you went on Fox and talked about this some. You mentioned that you were a liberal yourself, and you didn’t necessarily agree with Palmer’s political beliefs.
Harris: That’s right.