With the news that Facebook were buying Oculus VR last night, it was as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, taking to all manner of social media to express their thoughts on the matter. When I saw the news myself, I gave up a deep and despairing sigh at yet another fledgling company finding itself in the clutches of one of the giants of the modern tech industry.
But is our collective dismay at the purchase justified? Does it really have such a meaningful impact that developers should abandon supporting the device? Could it actually be – shock, horror – a good thing?
Taking that emotional gut reaction out of the equation, it’s certainly a very interesting move both from Facebook’s perspective and the soon to be rebranded Oculus VR’s.
It’s quite astonishing to think, but Facebook is now a decade old. It was founded on February 4th 2004 and, over the course of just a few years, quickly established itself as the dominant force in social media. However, in order to stay relevant in the ever shifting trends of the internet, they have bought up potential threats to their hegemony, most notably in the form of Instagram and WhatsApp.
Buying Oculus VR is a very different kind of acquisition, because they are still very much in their infancy. The Oculus Rift first came to the fore in 2012 as a Kickstarter project, quickly earning $2.4 million and gaining a lot of support and good will from the community and developers as they progressed. Most notably, Valve supported and helped them to evolve the Rift and John Carmack recently left id Software for Oculus VR.
But one question that needs to be asked is whether or not theirs was a sustainable project. Far beyond their Kickstarter campaign, they raised $16 million in funding in the middle of 2013 and a further $75 million at its end. Then Project Morpheus was announced.
Sony’s move into the realms of virtual reality was long anticipated, but a powerful one nonetheless. It presented Oculus VR with an interesting problem, as they would now be facing direct competition against a product which could potentially launch at the same time or before the Rift and with the backing and reach of a huge company like Sony.
Though Facebook and Oculus VR were apparently already in discussions, the grand entrance that Sony made a fortnight ago is the kind of thing that could have tipped any deal over the edge. When faced with an adversary so much bigger than you, you need allies of your own to really stand a chance.
With Facebook’s backing, the Oculus Rift has a much better chance than it did before. More resources can be thrown at the project to help it flourish and develop, and the technology can be brought further into the public domain than it would have previously.
It also gives a clearer vision of what they want to achieve. Mark Zuckerberg’s blog post shows that Facebook has a plan beyond simply buying out competitors, as he wrote of gaming as the first stepping stone on a road to truer virtual reality experiences at sports games or with remote teaching.
Though Oculus was fast becoming a darling of the tech industry, it’s only really with the backing of a major company with the financial might of Facebook that they can go toe to toe with Sony in these kinds of areas. Sony have their film and TV empire, their camera business and technology to capture a real environment, and already have burgeoning relationships with the likes of NASA. To create similar partnerships and solutions, having the Facebook name backing you gets a foot in the door.
But dropping you into a live sports stadium or letting you chat to friends in a VR world aren’t short term goals, and will rely on further improvements and huge leaps forward in technology. One thing that would block many of the potential social interactions is the fact that there’s a big headset strapped onto your face, blocking a huge amount of nuanced facial expression that can be captured by camera and conveyed to others. This is something that the first release of the Rift simply won’t be equipped to deal with, and could be impossible without moving beyond a face-mounted display.
For both these companies, it was quite possibly the right move to make for their sustainable futures, and yet I still find myself agreeing with the hordes of naysayers. I’m personally still wary about the deal and the extent to which Facebook could interfere, even with the upsides and stability that they bring. It certainly doesn’t help that, to echo the words of notch, Facebook creeps me out.