Palmer Luckey, defense contractor and the father of modern virtual reality, has created a VR headset that will kill the user if they die in the game they’re playing. He did this to commemorate the anime, Sword Art Online. Luckey is the founder of Oculus, a company he sold to Facebook in 2014 for $2 billion. This is the technology that Mark Zuckerberg rebranded as the foundation for Meta.
Luckey’s killer headset looks like a Meta Quest Pro hooked up with three explosive charge modules that sit above the screen. The charges are aimed directly at the user's forebrain and, should they go off, would obliterate the head of the user.
“The idea of tying your real life to your virtual avatar has always fascinated me—you instantly raise the stakes to the maximum level and force people to fundamentally rethink how they interact with the virtual world and the players inside it,” Luckey wrote in a blog post explaining the project. “Pumped up graphics might make a game look more real, but only the threat of serious consequences can make a game feel real to you and every other person in the game.”
According to Luckey, the anime and light novel series Sword Art Online made people interested in virtual reality, especially in Japan. In SAO, players put on a NeveGear virtual reality headset and log into a new game called Sword Art Online only to discover a mad scientist has trapped them in a virtual world. The players have to fight their way through a 100 floor dungeon to escape. If they die in the game, they die in real life. Luckey published his post about the killer headset on November 6, the day that Sword Art Online went live in the world of the game’s fiction.
“The good news is that we are halfway to making a true NerveGear. The bad news is that so far, I have only figured out the half that kills you,” Luckey said. In SAO, the NerveGear kills players with a microwave emitter. According to Luckey, the device’s creator “was able to hide from his employees, regulators, and contract manufacturing partners. I am a pretty smart guy, but I couldn’t come up with any way to make anything like this work, not without attaching the headset to gigantic pieces of equipment.”
Unable to make the perfect recreation, Luckey opted for explosive modular charges. He tied them to a narrow-band photo sensor that detects the headset views a specific red screen that flashes at a specific frequency. “When an appropriate game-over screen is displayed, the charges fire, instantly destroying the brain of the user,” Luckey said.
Luckey said that he used three explosive charges he usually uses for a “different project.” Luckey didn’t specify which project, but he is also the founder of Anduril, a weapons and defense contractor which has won massive contracts with the government, and that is already developing loitering munitions, anti-drone tech for U.S. special forces, and underwater drones.
Luckey wrote that he wants to keep tinkering. “I have plans for an anti-tamper mechanism that, like the NerveGear, will make it impossible to remove or destroy the headset,” he said. “Even so, there are a huge variety of failures that could occur and kill the user at the wrong time. This is why I have not worked up the balls to actually use it myself.”
Despite betting big on defense contracts, a piece of Luckey will always belong to virtual reality. “At this point, it is just a piece of office art, a thought-provoking reminder of unexplored avenues in game design,” he said of his killer headset. “It is also, as far as I know, the first non-fiction example of a VR device that can actually kill the user. It won’t be the last.”