The future of virtual reality changed today when Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR. Oculus was at the forefront of the recent virtual reality renaissance. Since their initial Kickstarter two years ago, virtual reality has transformed from a failed dream into one of today’s most promising emerging technologies. Oculus positioned itself to be the market leader in a new, and extremely lucrative branch of consumer technology. Millions of gamers and tech aficionados have been eagerly awaiting the release of the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, which promised to deliver immersive virtual reality to the masses. In particular, gamers have been thrilled about the potential for virtual reality to create unique gaming experiences.
Which is why Zuck’s announcement received a collective “what the fuck?”
At first, this move seems downright bizarre. What does the world’s largest social network have to do with a niche gaming device? The fact of the matter is that the Rift was never just a gaming device. Already people have been using it for applications as varied as viewing a concert, avant garde art projects and even a virtual karaoke night for VR enthusiasts. Facebook’s mission is to “make the world more open and connected.” If you look at VR not just as a gaming platform, but as a way to connect people in new and different ways, the acquisition doesn’t just make sense — it was inevitable.
So where does this leave us? Already, the Oculus subreddit is filled with a fair amount of vocal discontent. They are worried that Oculus is sacrificing its ability to operate as an independent platform for a wide variety of virtual reality experiences. But one needs look no further than Facebook-owned Instagram to see that this is unlikely. Since Facebook purchased the image sharing social network in early 2012, Instagram users have seen little disruption to the service. Instagram has operated much as it ever had, albeit with greater integration with Facebook.
Another worry is over how video games fit into Facebook’s vision for the Oculus Rift. While Facebook has a variety of games on its application platform, it seems unlikely that Farmville will be optimized to work with the Rift! Prior to the acquisition, Oculus had been working closely with Valve to develop new and immersive video games prompting speculation of a VR native Half-Life 3. While Valve has developed its own prototype for a virtual reality headset, Michael Abrash stated that they wanted to “get [our] games running on the Rift.” It remains to be seen whether Facebook will partner with game developers like Valve or use the Rift primarily as a social networking tool. If they do move away from the video game market, Valve could decide to release their own VR headset, effectively splitting the VR hardware market between hardcore gamers and the rest of the social networking public.
The greatest benefit that Facebook brings to Oculus is the vast resources that can now be used to create mind blowing virtual reality experiences. You can bet Facebook will deploy its massive cash stockpiles, technical know-how and world class programming team to make virtual reality a success. Already, Zuckerburg has stated the possibility for “enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.”
Despite this, there has already been a vocal backlash against the deal. Notch, maker of the smash hit Minecraft, has already stated that he is cancelling a planned VR port of Minecraft because of the acquisition. From privacy concerns to claims that “serious games will not have a place on the Rift anymore”, there has been quite the furor coming from some corners of the internet. Others have expressed concerns that Facebook might make the Rift into a closed, proprietary system. This “Facebook Walled Garden” could potentially mean that only Facebook approved applications function on the Rift. This is a more serious concern and could prove damning to the future of virtual reality.
One thing that cannot be doubted is the devotion of the Oculus team to virtual reality as a medium. Palmer Luckey, the founder of Oculus, near-singlehandedly brought virtual reality back from the grave. By his side he has assembled a star-studded who’s-who of the virtual reality community. Particularly, John Carmack, legendary creator of Doom and VR pioneer has since joined Oculus as the CTO. Carmack has stated that “it is a moral imperative” to develop virtual reality and the entire Oculus team has demonstrated the utmost devotion to ensuring its success. We don’t know the terms of the deal. We don’t know what Zuckerberg promised to Oculus. But we know that it was convincing enough to make these two and the rest of the Oculus team decide to take the deal. And that’s good enough for me.
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