Photo: Thomas Hannich
By JP Mangalindan
May 23, 2013

Palmer Luckey, 20, wants to give virtual reality a second life. The technology — gadgets that cover the eyes and create 3-D images — has been a fixture in science fiction since the 1980s but never took off because real-life devices were scandalously expensive. Luckey, a homeschooled tinkerer, has been working on perfecting the idea for three years, taking cues from today’s smartphones. His Oculus Rift raised $2.4 million on Kickstarter. No launch date is yet set.

How it works

Luckey built early prototypes, assembled with parts from his gadget collection, in his garage. “I just decided to build my own,” he remembers. Users slip on the Oculus Rift headset (above), which is connected to a PC. They can then see a panoramic 3-D image — a castle, say, or a green pasture — that shifts and tilts automatically by tracking the motion of their heads.

Big backers

The device already has many fans in entertainment. John Carmack, the legendary programmer behind games like Doom, calls it “the best VR demo probably the world has ever seen.” Gears of War designer Cliff Bleszinski and Minecraft creator Markus “Notch” Persson have also helped fuel anticipation for the device by publicly praising its design — as well as its vast potential.

What’s next

After getting funding, Luckey co-founded Oculus VR with CEO Brendan Iribe, former chief product officer of cloud-streaming firm Gaikai. Iribe says they are focusing on shipping developer hardware to programmers so that they can create software. More than 10,000 have already begun receiving development kits. The company has yet to reveal how much a retail model will cost.

This story is from the June 10, 2013 issue of Fortune.

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