Would you rather be immersed in this - or Facebook? Photo: Getty
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I'd rather stick my head in a whale's blowhole than play Facebook's Oculus Rift

Facebook don't want to make great games. They want more users, more metadata and more adverts. Whatever the Oculus Rift could have been is now dead.

I’m not angry at the guys at Oculus Rift for selling to Facebook. Two billion dollars is top hat and monocle money. No amount of nerdy enthusiasm can repel capital of that magnitude. So it goes.

What does this mean for the Oculus Rift, though? The word "dead" is a good starting point. Whatever the Oculus Rift was or might have been is now dead. A device that was shaping up to be the most radical advance in video game technology in a generation will instead now become some sort of Facebook thing. Just the idea of it makes my flesh crawl. The Oculus Rift allowed players to feel a level of immersion beyond anything a mere screen could offer. I’d sooner shove my head into a whale’s blowhole than be immersed in Facebook. And I don’t even really know what would be in a blowhole. I’d chance it.

The problem is that when you take something that was designed to be a high-end piece of gaming hardware and make it something for everybody, you’re killing the heart of it; you are killing the ambition and the pioneering nature of it. Oculus Rift was potentially a leap forward in game technology, not just a step. Sure, it was a leap forward that only a few people would be able to make at first, those with the necessary computer hardware and so on, but that’s how technology starts, the enthusiasts pick it up and it grows outward from there. It’s not elitist so much as it is a process. The average consumer doesn’t want to be a beta tester or a guinea pig, but enthusiasts love it. So developments take time, but they usually end up working out fine. The Oculus Rift for its part could have become the next big thing had it been allowed to grow organically like everything else does. Sure it wasn’t going to be universally popular right away, but barring some sort of insurmountable flaw popping up it looked like a sure bet for success.

 

A prototype of the virtual reality headset, Oculus Rift, in January 2014. Photo: Getty

Had the Oculus Rift succeeded it would have dragged games technology with it, expectations would have raised, progress would have happened. Home computer hardware would finally have had a reason to step up after years of competition with consoles they haven’t tried to be state of the art in almost a decade. Humanity would have finally unlocked the achievement ‘Virtual Reality Is A Thing Now’ after decades of frustration.

Thus Facebook coming in at this stage feels like it could be a very bad thing indeed. The Oculus Rift isn’t a finished technology yet. It needs better screens, it demands such a very high frame rate in applications that games have to be very simple or else the computer running them has to be hugely powerful and it can cause motion sickness in some people. There is a long way to go even before it becomes a ubiquitous device for video game enthusiasts, let alone the general public. So if Facebook does shift the goal of the Oculus Rift from starting out as a minority interest technology to being a two-headsets-in-every-living-room media device then we’re going to see it evolve into something different from what was on the cards before. The potential revolution in home video gaming could be replaced by yet another white elephant.

Of course this is speculation. Maybe Facebook won’t change anything about the Oculus Rift or the direction in which it is headed, but that would be spectacularly bad business considering the amount of money they just sank into buying it. You don’t spend two billion dollars on a company just to tell them to crack on as they were doing.

Facebook knows that there’s more money in Farmville than there is in Elite Dangerous or Day Z. They know all about mass appeal. Past that they don’t want to make, or facilitate the making of, great games. They want our metadata, they want to expand the number of users they have and they want to bombard us with adverts. There’s nothing wrong with that, it goes with the territory as a social media company. However we have no reason to believe that anything good, from a gaming point of view, will come from the acquisition of a gaming technology by a social media firm.

I would love to be pleasantly surprised by the Oculus Rift. Maybe it will be everything that it could have been and more, backed by greater public interest and wedges of fresh money. However it’s much more likely that this is it for any Oculus Rift powered gaming revolution and possibly Virtual Reality too for the foreseeable future. This might all sound rather bleak, and, well, it is. Also there’s no Santa Claus and one day the sun will burn out. I say one day, it won’t actually be a day, and we’ll all be dead.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times