Facebook Acquires Oculus Rift: What Does It Mean?

Among gamers, the surprise acquisition of VR headset maker Oculus Rift by Facebook is being treated as a harbinger of the end times. Many are investing a great deal of hope in the next-gen virtual-reality tech being developed by Oculus Rift, believing it may kick gaming to the next level. To have that very tech scooped up the company at the nexus of everything awful in game design seems like a bad thing.

I’ve been down the VR-headset road before, visiting developers and manufacturers for various eyewear and head-mounted displays in the late 90s, when I was still with PC Gamer magazine. I still have a Forte VFX-1 sitting in my office (and it can be yours for the right price!). I never did like any of the tech. The visual quality was pretty low, the tracking was iffy, and the motion sickness was real. Most could only be worn for a short time before inducing headaches. If I recall correctly, I gave each a number rating in aspirin for time to, and severity of, the onset of pain.

We’re about 17 years down the road from Forte, and Oculus Rift has some incredible talent developing some remarkable tech. They may well bring to market a good product that can be used for longer periods of time with high visual and tracking quality at a low price.

But they haven’t done that yet. All we’ve seen are demos, and although the tech is impressive, the price and the long term usability and consumer appeal of the headset remains to be seen.

There is a lot more to Oculus Rift than just gaming, and the potential it offers for communication, medical, research, and other applications has yet to be fully explored. It may well be the first real step towards successful consumer-level virtual reality. Or it may be a novelty item. Clearly Facebook thinks it’s the former, since they paid $2 billion for the company.

The question is: why? What does VR have to do with social media?

Obviously, the first answer will be “games,” which are a large part of Facebook’s limited profitability. However, none of the games on Facebook would benefit at all from a VR headset. If we have to assume that the time spent using the headset should be limited (and I’m assuming that for reasons of comfort and eyesight, this will be the case), people aren’t going to don one to play Candy Crush Saga.

Does this mean Facebook intends to plunge more deeply into MMO-style gaming with social components? Perhaps, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to see them attempt to merge FB with some more VR-friendly World of Warcraft-clone on the decline. There are plenty to choose from, and it would give FB a bigger presence in a market with a built-in social component.

Gaming isn’t the only thing in the Oculus Rift orbit. Facebook is about human connectivity, and there may be some potential for the headset to be used for real-time 3D communication.

The bigger question is: how does Facebook see themselves? They’re basically a late evolution of the BBS concept, providing connections among friends and even strangers to … I dunno, share cat pictures? I use Facebook and enjoy sharing items of interest with a limited circle of people, and I like reading what others have to say. It’s an interesting forum. The signal-to-noise ratio is still on the acceptable side, although every new change brings it close to a tipping point where the noise will finally drown out any useful application.

Facebook, however, sees itself as more than just some kind of jumped-up BBS. They’re desperate to be the next Microsoft, Apple, Google. They want to own an ecosystem that gives them a piece everything that flows through the pipeline. Thus far, they have failed to do that, and I believe they will continue to fail at expanding beyond their limited mandate of sharing family photos and memes. I’ll freely admit I could be wrong about that. They have money and they have people’s attention. That could carry them far. It just hasn’t, yet.

They’re already losing ground with younger users, and as their user-base ages, the chance of them building an audience around a new toy like Oculus Rift declines. Their reputation in the gamer community is lower than that of Electronic Arts, The Worstest, Most Hatery Company in the World (at least according to gamers who really need to get out more).

If you want to know just what the tech community thinks of Facebook, consider that many are suggesting Oculus Rift would have been in better hands with almost any one else: Microsoft, Sony, Apple, even Electronic Arts.

Markus Perrson, creator of Minecraft, dropped his plans for an Oculus Rift version of the game the moment he heard of the acquisition, saying that Facebook “creeps him out.”

Persson is a voice that matters, and in a long post he explains the potential for VR, and the problem with the most promising VR tech falling into the hands of Facebook:

Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.

Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications of VR. Being able to sit in a virtual living room and see your friend’s avatar? Business meetings? Virtual cinemas where you feel like you’re actually watching the movie with your friend who is seven time zones away?

But I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.

Fortunately, the rise of Oculus coincided with competitors emerging. None of them are perfect, but competition is a very good thing. If this means there will be more competition, and VR keeps getting better, I am going to be a very happy boy. I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook. Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me.

And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.

I have the greatest respect for the talented engineers and developers are Oculus. It’s been a long time since I met a more dedicated and talented group of people. I understand this is purely a business deal, and I’d like to congratulate both Facebook and the Oculus owners. But this is where we part ways.

Persson is speaking as a bit of a purist, but his assessment is dead-on. Facebook is not a stable platform. I don’t mean it’s technically unstable. I mean it’s fundamentally unstable. It has one overriding goal: to connect people to Facebook. That’s not the overriding goal of Microsoft, Apple, or Google, who have something genuine to offer: hardware, product, an operating system.

All Facebook has is, well … you. When a service is free, you’re not the customer, you’re the product being sold. Facebook’s product isn’t games or an operating environment or even a set of software tools. Facebook’s product is human eyeballs. I guess they thought a device that maximizes the experience of those very eyeballs would be a natural fit.

But if the history of Facebook tells us anything, it’s simply this: despite building a popular social platform for millions of people, they still, after all this time, haven’t figured out what to do with it. Maybe they just spent $2 billion to find that answer.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.