On Tuesday it was announced that Facebook had bought the company behind the new virtual reality hardware called the “Oculus Rift” for $2 billion. The internet blew a collective gasket.
The Oculus Rift is by far the most advanced civilian virtual reality hardware that has ever been produced. We’re all familiar with the idea behind it: put on a headset and your senses will be taken to another virtual world. The technology has existed since the 80s but there had never really been a properly immersive implementation of it until the Oculus Rift came about. OR has high-definition screens, a 110 degree field-of-view and advanced motion tracking which adds up to make an entirely immersive experience. It has been shown at numerous gaming conventions over the last few years and has received rave reviews for its incredible functionality.
OR was a concept that initially became one of crowd-funding site Kickstarter’s biggest successes. Thousands of people pledged their money up front to get a chance to be one of the first people in the world to own this new piece of technology. The project raised $2.4 million through Kickstarter but has since earned a total of $91 million in contributions from its’ own money-raising efforts, including recruiting venture capitalists. The headset is still very much in development even years after its’ Kickstarter project – as new innovations such as OLED screens, infrared motion tracking and more widen the possibilities available with the Oculus Rift which encourage the product’s creators to continue to make it better rather than sell an inferior version to the market.
There were numerous supporters of the Oculus Rift project from within the gaming industry, heralding it as a potentially paradigm-altering device. Valve, a company known for its’ affinity for creating its’ own platforms like Steam and the Steam Box instead of relying on third parties, publically backed the Oculus Rift as their chosen VR hardware and had been working with them to make it better. Some of Valve’s most famous titles such as Portal, Half Life 2 and Left 4 Dead all feature Oculus Rift support. Similarly, Minecraft creator Notch had just recently been in talks with the developers of the Oculus Rift about bringing his phenomenally successful game to the platform in some way.
Both these high-profile collaborations will have certainly gone up in flames with Tuesday’s deal. Notch has already posted a blog letting his legions know about his work with the Oculus Rift and how he has cancelled his deal because “Facebook creeps me out”. Valve will be unlikely to work with a company that is part-owned by competitors Microsoft.
Notch isn’t alone in his distrust of Facebook. Denizens of the internet have developed a natural, antagonistic view of Facebook in recent years as its size has grown and its business goals have become apparent. It is already the most dominant social network the internet has ever seen and it is not content to stop at world domination. Facebook has purchased WhatsApp for $19bn and Instagram for $1bn along with 18 other small companies or technology patents in the last two years alone. Facebook holds a wealth of information about hundreds of millions of its users and uses this data to make profit. The liberal-socialist ideal of the internet, in that everybody and every site should be equal with privacy and no outside observation of their actions, doesn’t comply with Facebook’s domineering.
Facebook’s track record with games has been patchy to say the least, as well. Micro-transaction heavy games such as Farmville and Words with Friends (generally created by Zynga) and console games’ determined push to get users to “Connect With Facebook” to share in-game events with friends as a not-so-subtle free marketing exercise have left Facebook with a bad reputation amongst gamers.
Thousands have expressed their dissent to the Facebook takeover of the Oculus Rift online, with comments being almost exclusively negative about the news. Already there have been campaigns on the internet to get people to cancel their pre-order and support of the Oculus Rift in protest at the takeover. Guides have appeared on Reddit as to how to withdraw your contributions to the project. Those that were previously interested in the device and who were looking into purchasing it when it became available have said that Facebook’s involvement has evaporated their interest. It will take a public relations miracle for the Oculus Rift not to lose thousands of customers over their new ownership.
The general consensus, then, is that the Oculus Rift’s potential has been severely weakened by its’ purchase by Facebook but is this criticism founded? Facebook offer a great deal of capital and expertise in developing platforms, which will be necessary for the Oculus Rift at some point in its development. They are a company that can deliver what the founders of the project wanted, if they are co-operative. Notch himself recognised in his blog post about Oculus Rift’s takeover that virtual reality hardware could have massive positive implications for social situations – such as spending time with friends in a more real sense even if they are “seven time zones” away and improving things like conference calls. If Facebook really puts the effort into designing an entirely new social environment then it could well be one of the biggest technological advances since the inception of the internet. However, myself and millions of others who were interested in the Oculus Rift are sceptical of Facebook’s commitment to the original idea of the project.
The hopes of virtual reality may now be pinned on Sony’s recently revealed Project Morpheus, a VR headset similar to the Oculus Rift designed for the PlayStation 4. It would be reasonable to imagine that Sony’s hardware prowess would see them build a fantastic virtual reality product as they already have successful technologies for motion control built in to their Move controller. Importantly, the presence of competition between the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus will help to drive the development of both even faster. Neither will want to have the inferior product and each have their advantages over the other. Facebook’s takeover of the Oculus Rift may have been worse news if it had come a few months ago, but coming after Sony’s GDC conference it sets up a completely new technology arms race that could play out fascinatingly over the next decade.
Virtual Reality is the way in which games can really expand into an entirely new dimension. The Oculus Rift was the flagship of the technology and showed that it is feasible to make interesting and unique gaming experiences with the tools and technologies we have today. Facebook’s takeover may be a setback for the project, compromising its initial aims, but could end up being an important step in the long run – opening up virtual reality to a plethora of new functions. Between the newly-focused Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus, virtual reality has not been held back by Facebook’s recent takeover but is in a much higher profile and much more advanced state than it has ever been before.