What Zuckerberg Sees When He Puts on Oculus Rift
Facebook moved quickly to acquire Oculus VR—creator of the forthcoming Oculus Rift virtual reality headset—for approximately $2 billion. Discussions between the two companies opened less than two weeks ago, according to Oculus VR’s CEO Brendan Irebe. “We locked ourselves in the Facebook HQ and just got the deal done really fast,” Irebe told the Wall Street Journal. “We don’t want to disrupt the team and go through months of negotiations.”
Facebook’s founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg reportedly instigated the deal. “Strategically we want to start building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile,” he said on a conference call on Tuesday night. Zuckerberg sees the acquisition as part of Facebook’s mission to build the so-called knowledge economy. “There are not many things that are candidates to be the next major computing platform,” he said. “[This acquisition is a] long-term bet on the future of computing.”
Zuckerberg described his first time using the VR headset as revelatory: “When you put on the goggles, it’s different from anything I have ever experienced in my life,” he said.
The headset, designed by 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, has been available as a developer kit since March 2013. So far it’s primarily been used for video games (see “Can Oculus Rift Turn Virtual Wonder into Commercial Reality?”). John Carmack, co-creator of the seminal 3-D video game Doom, joined Oculus VR in August; many enthusiasts and independent game makers have already released games and demos for the hardware. This has happened even though the company hasn’t announced a launch date for a commercial version of the hardware. At this point the device isn’t expected to be released any earlier than the end of this year.
Facebook views the technology as more than a peripheral for video games. “Immersive virtual and augmented reality will become a part of people’s everyday life,” Zuckerberg said. “History suggests there will be more platforms to come, and whoever builds and defines these,” he said, will shape the future and reap the benefits.
Asked on the investor call why the time is right for mass-market virtual reality, Zuckerberg cited the low cost of the necessary components. “One of the things driving this is that people can reuse components mass-produced for phones that can render a world quickly enough to not make a person feel motion sickness,” he said. “You need to render everything in a virtual world within 15 milliseconds, otherwise it’s too jarring and doesn’t feel real. For the first time, we are able to do that.”
The Oculus VR team posted a blog on the company’s website last night, acknowledging that the partnership with Facebook might seem odd at first glance: “But when you consider it more carefully, we’re culturally aligned with a focus on innovating and hiring the best and brightest; we believe communication drives new platforms; we want to contribute to a more open, connected world; and we both see virtual reality as the next step.”
Not everybody shares the optimism about Facebook’s new acquisition. Among the deal’s critics are some who backed the original Oculus VR Kickstarter campaign in August 2012. Markus Persson, the outspoken creator of Minecraft, wrote on his blog “I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”
Persson also tweeted to his 1.5 million followers that he had been in talks with Oculus concerning a VR version of Minecraft, but “I just canceled that deal. Facebook creeps me out.” In his blog post he complained that Facebook’s focus on social interactions rather than video games may harm the Oculus vision. “Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts,” he wrote. “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.”
Another critic is Jaron Lanier, who founded the first VR company, VPL Research, in 1983. Lanier warned that the acquisition could have a stultifying effect: “I have seen a lot of cases where big ticket acquisitions seem to actually slow innovative startups down,” he said in an e-mail to MIT Technology Review. “Whether the combination of Oculus and Facebook will yield more creativity or creepiness will be determined by whether the locus of control stays with individuals or drifts to big remote computers controlled by others.”
Others from within the video game industry see good things about the deal. Andy Payne, the chairman of the Association for U.K. Interactive Entertainment and of Mastertronic, one of the U.K.’s longest-running video game publishers, said: “This could be an amazing deal if Oculus is allowed to press on, but more quickly. Facebook’s mass-market power will move VR into the mainstream. They have bought a vision of the future. And they have also bought future relevance.”
Even Lanier, who works at Microsoft and is rumored to be developing a parallel product for Xbox One, restated his belief in the technology: “VR can be tremendously fun and beautiful.”