Facebook Bought Oculus: Is VR Dead Before It Began?
What happens when the little guy that everyone loves to rally behind gets sucked up into an evil corporation and becomes rich? A veritable storm of writhing anger, apparently. That’s what happened when Oculus – makers of the Oculus Rift VR headset – announced they had been sold to Facebook for the princely sum of $2 billion in cash and stock options.
“When Facebook first approached us about partnering, I was skeptical. As I learned more about the company and its vision and spoke with Mark, the partnership not only made sense, but became the clear and obvious path to delivering virtual reality to everyone. Facebook was founded with the vision of making the world a more connected place. Virtual reality is a medium that allows us to share experiences with others in ways that were never before possible”. – Palmer Luckey, CEO of Oculus VR
Cries of “Farmville VR coming soon!” and “friend request popups in the matrix, argh!” were juvenile at best and don’t merit further discussion. Of note however was Notch, creator of the mega-hit Minecraft, who shortly after hearing the news declared his interest in developing a Rift version of Minecraft firmly off the table.
We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out.
— Markus Persson (@notch) March 25, 2014
Not that it actually matters, since there’s already a stunning community mod called MineCrift, one of the most popular games for current devkit owners. The developer community at large has taken the news altogether more stoically than the ex-fanboys of r/oculus.
Why Facebook? WHY?!
At first glance, Facebook and Oculus are polar opposites – a complete mismatch of technology companies. Facebook is in the business of selling user data gathered through some web software – the very definition of an evil corporation that everyone loves to hate. Oculus is the upstart, led by the soft-spoken hero Palmer Luckey to fame and glory by thousands of Kickstarter backers who believed in the product, and in him. So why would Facebook have bought Oculus – and for such a significant price? I have three, not mutually exclusive, theories:
1. Mark Zuckerberg has an awful lot of pocket money and likes to buy shiny things. He was probably just as blown away upon donning the latest prototype as everyone else was. He threw down a blank cheque and screamed TAKE MY MONEY. I feel much the same way, hence why I pre-ordered the second iteration of the developer’s kit as soon as it was announced; and will certainly be buying a consumer version when it’s released, as well as countless controllers and peripherals to greater immerse me in virtual worlds. If I had billions to invest, I sure would’ve put those into Oculus too.
2. Facebook made a long-term strategic business decision about a future computing platform in order to stay relevant. People were just as perplexed back in 2005 when Google snapped up Android Inc, a mobile phone software company. “Wireless will be the next frontier for search” they claimed, and many scoffed. Now mobile represents as much as 30% of internet browsing. Facebook is an incredibly successful internet platform, for messaging, sharing, and real-time chat. Oculus, and VR in general, is just another platform that in 10 years will likely be just as ubiquitous as the mobile phone is today.
3. As Jessie J tells us – everybody’s got a price. Oculus’ price was $2 billion, the point at which it would simply have been stupid to say no. There is no doubt that Oculus had ben courted by other eager firms, some of whom the community would almost certainly have appreciated more. Firms like Valve, Google, or heck – even Microsoft (actually, no – I take that back, not Microsoft – the great killer of all things that are cool ). But none of them fronted a price that Oculus found acceptable; Facebook did. There’s also the fact that selling out to Apple or Google would have meant destroying their current vision and being fully swallowed into the parent company’s game plans – Facebook will allow them to continue operating independently (or at least, so we are told).
So What Does This Mean for Oculus’ Future?
Facebook hasn’t yet destroyed Instagram or WhatsApp, despite the same initial fears that it would flood the apps with advertising or require Facebook login. Oculus has ben given the same promises: that nothing in their vision will change, and that current gaming focus will come first. At some point down the line, a VR environment similar to second life with Facebook avatars and inevitable advertising is likely, but not yet; and who cares? What else does the acquisition mean for Oculus’ future?
Cheaper hardware. Palmer has specifically said that the deal allows them to reduce or remove hardware margins, meaning a cheaper Rift for everyone. The price of entry will still be high considering the high-end PC you need to power a satisfying stereoscopic HD VR experience, but at least getting the Rift into peoples’ homes will be a little easier.
Oculus-branded controller. At the moment, the Razer Hydra is widely regarded as the standard for VR interaction controllers; yet another peripheral to add to the list. Razer is rumored to be working on their own version of a VR HMD; and with the resources of Facebook behind it, it’s not unreasonable to think Oculus is working on creating their perfect VR controller too.
Custom content. It’s all about the killer app. Though the hardware itself is expected to remain a fully open system, there’s nothing to stop Oculus now creating the real killer app that will only work with the Rift and not competing devices. For me, the Tuscany demo they supplied with the original development kit remains a highlight; if that were fleshed out to a full role-playing game, I’d be a very happy boy indeed.
Custom hardware. At the moment, Oculus is using off-the-shelf screens designed for smartphones. It works, but it’s not ideal. Designing custom hardware is a massive undertaking, and a hugely expensive process that will only be possible now that they have the bankroll of Facebook behind them.
“This deal is going to immediately accelerate a lot of plans that were languishing on our wishlist, and the resulting hardware will be better AND cheaper. We have the resources to create custom hardware now, not just rely on the scraps of the mobile phone industry.”
In a word: possibilities. Oculus can go from being a niche VR headset maker, to a complete VR platform for everyone; providing content, enticing developers, and creating compelling VR solutions.
The future just got here rather quicker than we were expecting, and I’ve never been more excited. Are you as excited as I am? Or are you going to call me a shill for Facebook?
Image Credits: Sergey Galyonkin Via Flickr
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