Facebookulus Rift

I was as surprised by Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, and so was everybody else, it seems. That somebody bought them isn’t a surprise, especially with Sony stepping up its competitive consumer VR efforts, but Facebook probably wasn’t anybody’s most expected suitor. They weren’t anybody’s favoured suitor either, judging by the apoplectic reaction to ¬†the announcement amongst many (most?) gamers and VR enthusiasts. Myself, I’m ambivalent. I can understand concerns about Facebook’s policies towards its users and third-party developers, but I also think that if you put that aside, then Oculus stands to gain a lot from the deal (beyond the immediate pay day for the founders and investors, obviously). And I also think consumer VR in general stands to gain, regardless of what happens to Oculus and the Rift in the long term.

It’s easy to imagine a nightmare “Facebooked” VR where you have to sign-in to FB to use the Rift, and your experience is repeatedly interrupted by inducements to ‘like’ and ‘share’ your current activity, and invitations to go play Candy Crush VR with a guy you met once at a work conference eight years ago. In fact, there’s probably an amateur film-maker or two working on viral videos that portray this ‘Facebook VR’ doomsday scenario right now. Similarly, restrictions on the Oculus platform could place onerous demands on third party developers to use and integrate Facebook’s services, hampering their ability to innovate or build truly independent products.

However, as cynical as Facebook’s policies towards their users and their platform are, I don’t think their management is so stupid as to immediately ruin a nascent and potentially highly lucrative new platform. Remember, Facebook beat Myspace because, when it first appeared, it was a far, far better experience, with a lot less bullshit. Just like Twitter didn’t include promoted tweets until they got big, and YouTube was ads-free for years. The management of these companies know that intrusive branding, advertisements and tie-ins are toxic to the initial experience. Once the platform has achieved critical mass, then they start to introduce these elements gradually, but not before.

In the short to medium term, I don’t think Facebook will mess too much with the Rift. They’ll be smart enough to remain mostly hands-off until consumer VR really takes off, but during that time Oculus will get some huge benefits that would not have been available to them if they remained independent. Most importantly, they will have a basically infinite supply of cash with which to hire talent and build custom hardware components. The latter is of particular importance. The new wave of VR was bootstrapped as much by the mobile phone industry as it was by crowdfunded cash, but relying on the vagaries of a separate, fast-moving industry is a dangerous situation to be in. Mobile phone screen sizes and technologies are constantly changing, and not necessarily in a direction that fits with the needs of VR. Likewise components such as cameras and accelerometers.

Oculus now have the scope to order their own components to their own specifications, such as ultra-high-resolution screens. That’s good for them, but also for other, smaller VR companies. Because once there is an established manufacturing base, other VR startups may be able to piggy-back on Oculus’ suppliers, in the same way that they piggy-backed on those of the mobile manufacturers. If consumer VR became a success, specialist manufacturing would have appeared eventually, but this means it could happen far sooner than it otherwise would have.

The second benefit is that Facebook’s infrastructure also presents a great opportunity for Oculus to experiment with large-scale VR experiences. John Carmack has long talked about his dreams of a “Metaverse” – an immersive, massively-multi-user¬†alternative world. VR hardware can provide the immersion, but you will also need some serious computing power to host the servers themselves and make them accessible worldwide, and Facebook’s experience with data-centres and large-scale availability could be very beneficial there.

Finally, Facebook’s deep pockets should allow Oculus to price their initial products more aggressively, in order to quickly build a mass market. The sooner consumer VR is a proven technology, the sooner more companies will get serious about competing, and the faster the industry will progress. The eventual winners out of all of this may be Facebook/Oculus, Sony, Microsoft, Google, Apple, or someone else entirely. The first movers are rarely the ones who dominate an industry, but they’re necessary to get things started, and the more capable their initial product, the better, because it sets the standard that their competitors have to meet.