Oculus' Palmer Luckey: living in the future

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Palmer Luckey woke up this morning a very rich, young (21 years old) man. Hopefully, in the process of changing his financial fortune, he did not also change his residential location. Palmer Luckey, you see, is  not just “lucky,” he has, in fact, a much more reliable explanation for his good fortune: he is living in the future, and, that may just be the real secret to his success.

What could be more advantageous for looking into the future than already living there? The world of innovation is populated by many such people, not content to take the products of the present as they are given, and make the best out of what has been offered. Instead, repeatedly let-down by the industry incumbents who define the state of the art for the rest of us, and who repeatedly disappoint us in the process, these future-dwellers take responsibility for creating the next generation of products and services, themselves. After selling his firm Oculus VR to Facebook earlier this week for $2 billion, Mr. Luckey explained the reason for him getting into the virtual reality goggle business in the first place was nothing more complicated than: “If there had been a perfect headset, I wouldn’t have gotten into virtual reality.”

People living in the future are not content with the status quo. The status quo is all about today and what we can do at present. But, some people are not patient to remain in the present. They are impatient to move into the future, and since existing industry dwellers all too often remain fixed in the present [soon to become the past], in order to harvest profits, preserve cash flows or remain faithful to existing assets, these future-dwellers  take matters into their own hands. Polaroid’s Edwin Land lived in the future, so did FedEx’s Fred Smith and  iPod catalyst Tony Fadell [who sold Nest to Google just last month for $3.2 billion].  Not all of them, by a long-shot, are successful, and many are completely invisible. There were legions of “tinkerers, ” for example,  who took early automobiles, and airplanes, wireless devices and almost any other product you can think about, and made them better, receiving little, if anything, in reward. My friend and Driving Strategic Innovation faculty colleague MIT-Sloan Professor Eric von Hippel is the real pioneer in our recognition and understanding of such individuals — who he calls “lead-users” — and he has pointed out that almost all surgical, dental, banking, agricultural and athletic devices and procedures that you are familiar with were originated by such individuals. Palmer Luckey expressed just such a desire to move an entire field into the future, almost single-handedly, in his blog on “The Future of Virtual Reality” when he admitted: “ My foray into virtual reality was driven by a desire to enhance my gaming experience; to make my rig more than just a window to these worlds, to actually let me step inside them. As time went on, I realized that VR technology wasn’t just possible, it was almost ready to move into the mainstream. All it needed was the right push” and he made it his business to provide this “push.”  Let’s be clear, this was all about his needs, not about a focus group, a market test or even where the industry thought that the “state of the art” presently was. This was also not about his desire to become a player in the industry. None of this, at least at the beginning, what was energizing him. He merely was looking for a better gaming experience. That this all turned turned out to be a $2 billion,  potentially industry-disrupting, venture was not his intention at the start, and it’s entirely possible that he would have been content to help somebody else solve his problem, if only they had asked.

Oculus is in a complex and boundary-shifting space, that  Sony,  with its’ Project Morpheus, and Google with Glass, have also entered as well. No one knows how this competition will play out, nor who will eventually win. We can be sure that  there will undoubtedly be more entrants and, eventually, some spectacular failures as well.   The science-fiction author, William Gibson, has famously observed: “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” and it’s no surprise that Palmer Luckey is a fan of time-travel and an admirer of another future-dweller, Nikola Tesla.  Finding, trusting and nourishing future-dwelling talent can be an amazing competency for any organization hoping to adjust to an uncertain future in a more nimble manner, and Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR is a big bet on the value of such people in confronting the unknown. But, the bigger message is that right now, while you’re reading this blog, other future-dwellers are frustrated by the offerings that your industry is providing them, and they, too, are involved in subversive activities similar to Oculus VR, in an effort to push your own industry a bit further into a more acceptable future. If only you could find them, then you too would have an edge into the next level of competition.


Bill Fischer is the co-director of IMD-MIT/Sloan’s Driving Strategic Innovation program. He is the co-author of Reinventing Giants (with Umberto Lago & Fang Liu) (Jossey-Bass, 2013), The Idea Hunter (with Andy Boynton & Bill Bole)  (Jossey-Bass, 2011), and Virtuoso Teams (with Andy Boynton, FT/Prentice Hall, 2005).

Bill tweets about innovation and China  at @bill_fischer

Source: Forbes Apple

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