Oculus Rift: Why Facebook?

I try to avoid bandwagon jumping as much as possible, but this I have to write about. Why Facebook? Why not, I don’t know, a hardware company? Or really… anyone else?

For those of you who don’t know, the Oculus Rift is a new immersive Virtual Reality gaming headset that’s in development, funded by Kickstarter. A friend of mine is a huge fanboy of the thing, so I’ve heard a lot about it despite not really being that excited about it. Sure, I’d love to try one, and may even buy one (or Sony’s shameless ripoff, the Morpheus) when it comes out (or maybe wait for version 2 when they have all of the bugs worked out), but I’ve never been ravenously excited about it like some people. I’m definitely in the “wait and see” crowd, but I am hopeful.

So a few days ago news surfaced that Oculus VR is being bought by Facebook for two billion USD. That’s twice what they paid for Instagram at the height of its popularity, quite impressive for a company who, developer previews aside, doesn’t actually have a consumer-ready product yet. And yes, I agree with the point that they needed the backing of a big-name company; VR has been done so badly in the past, and a lot of people aren’t so sure Kickstarter projects will ever be successful. So here’s the part where you came in: why Facebook? They’ve never really done anything like this. They’re a SaaS company, interested only in collecting as much data about you as possible and selling ads to demographics. And they’re darn good at it too. The closest thing they’ve done was the Facebook smartphone, whose failure was both predictable and complete. Yes, this is a completely different situation, but my point is Facebook doesn’t have a good track record

What I really fear most about this is that this is a sign that the developers (apart from Facebook or not) misguidedly think that it’s going to primarily be some kind of a new social networking tool. I’m sorry, but I don’t see that ever happening. I don’t have any desire whatsoever to play Second Life with a 3DS strapped to my face. I would love to play games like Portal, Half-Life, Skyrim, and Minecraft (more on that last one later) in VR, but I can’t imagine using it to just hang out with my friends’ avatars in a virtual space. Unless we’re going to play a game together, I would much rather Skype and see their actual faces, even if they’re two dimensional, at least they’re real.

It seems to me that there are a lot of better candidates out whose affiliation would add value to the product rather than turn people off. Here are a few that I’ve thought of, and I’d be interested to hear any others you can think of in the comments.

Valve
If a SaaS company had to buy Oculus, this would be the company I would have chosen. We already know they’re interested in the idea, with all of the Source games coming to Rift (VR + Portal = Buy). I’d rather have a company backing me that’s enthusiastic about my product than one that simply has deep pockets. But more importantly for Valve, they need to sell their not-really-a-console-but-not-quite-a-PC-either Steam Machines. Gauranteed compatibility with the Rift would be a huge selling point for me. And their controller (which I suspect will be more popular than the Steam Machines) is really nice, and those dual touchpads would seem to me like they would allow for more organic movement than thumbsticks, a must to sell the VR immersion to yourself. Perhaps most important for Oculus, though, is how well-loved Valve is by gamers. Yes, you’ve got the DRM-hating crowd, but really Steam’s DRM is probably the least evil you can have and still be DRM. My Internet has been out for 4 days (I’m writing this from my phone, if you’re wondering, so please excuse any autocorrect errors), but I can still play my entire library of (offline) Steam games. More importantly, their ideals seem more in line. Valve started as an indie game company, and started a digital distribution platform because the technology existed, but there really wasn’t anything good enough out there. Sound familiar?

Samsung (or similar)
A smartphone manufacturer like Samsung would be great, not only for trendy brand recognition, but also because they already have the necessary supply lines. Oculus had a lot of trouble getting high refresh rate, high resolution screens for the Rift. This caused some motion sickness in early prototypes. The Galaxy S4 has the best quality screen I’ve ever seen in a smartphone, and I’m sure Oculus could learn a thing or two from engineers who have made their living minifying technology to fit in your pocket (or only kind of fit, in the case of the Galaxy Note). Additionally, they have experienced programmers, maybe not as many as a pure software developer, but Facebook has primarily web developers. Yes, I know that probably every one of Facebook’s programming staff is familiar with a minimum of three programming languages, but when all you do every day is PHP you’re bound to get rusty. Smartphone manufacturers are used to shoehorning features into a variety of ever-changing hardware; web devs mostly worry about keeping hackers away from their data.

Apple
I hate all things Apple with a deep and burning passion, but even I would have liked the idea of walking into the blindingly white, hipster pseudo-geek paradise to buy a Rift than ordering one from Facebook. They already have a huge fanbase (and a sizable anti-fanbase, but that’s a different story), are debatabley the most profitable tech company right now, and they desperately need to innovate. Since Steve Jobs died the only “innovation” they’ve come up with is to make a smaller, less profitable iPad to compete with the increasingly popular 7″ Android tablets, which is really unusual given that they’ve made their name being trend setters, not trend followers. Also, Apple has existing brick-and-mortar presence, both in standalone Apple stores and in Best Buys around the country. Like the above, they also have hardware supply lines and some of the best software developers, which would be a big plus.

Microsoft
Microsoft, like Apple, is strong in both the software and hardware department. Yes, they lean more toward the software end of the spectrum, but their real strength is their established presence in the gaming world. With Sony announcing the Morpheus VR headset, it seems like they are scrambling to throw together their own VR experience, another interesting reversal of fortunes from a few years ago when Sony quickly threw together the Playstation Move to compete with the Kinect. If I could connect the Oculus Rift to both my PC and to the XBone, I would be significantly more interested in buying both. As a side note, if I could use the Morpheus with The One, I would really start to question reality. Red pill please?

I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t comment on probably the most high-profile reaction to this deal, namely that of Notch of Minecraft fame, which you can read here. It is a remarkably diplomatic post, especially given all of the hate it has stirred up, be it directed at either Notch or Oculus/Facebook, or both. I think Notch genuinely believes AR is a great idea and Oculus is going to be a good thing, but like he says, “I don’t want to work with social, I want to work with games.” Maybe he is overly paranoid. Doesn’t he have a right to decide what support he writes into his code? As he mentions above, a mod exists to give Rift support, so are Rift users really out anything?

At the end of the day, I don’t think the Facebook buyout is going to hurt Oculus. I really don’t think Facebook is going to meddle with their new acquisition too much. Worst case is that they’ll have social integration with the games they put out, which is nothing new. Maybe they’ll snoop around to see what games I’m playing and suggest that I like them on Facebook or suggest other games I might like, but even that seems unlikely. Despite all the backlash, I doubt it will really affect sales that much. If you’re really interested in the thing, you’re going to buy it regardless of who is pulling its strings. On the positive side, it does lend Oculus a good deal of credibility; people have heard of Facebook, they haven’t necessarily heard of a company called Oculus VR, and even the name Valve may not cary much weight outside of the gaming world. I think there are plenty of better choices, but I don’t know their internal business workings, so I suppose I really can’t say anything. Two billion dollars goes a long way.

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