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

Photo: Getty
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Out with the old: how new species are evolving faster than ever

A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of diversification, as well as extinction.

Human population growth, increased consumption, hunting, habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species and now climate change are turning the biological world on its head. The consequence is that species are becoming extinct, perhaps faster than at any time since the dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago. This is an inconvenient truth.

But there are also convenient truths. Britain has gained about 2,000 new species over the past two millennia, because our predecessors converted forests into managed woodlands, orchards, meadows, wheat fields, roadsides, hedgerows, ponds and ditches, as well as gardens and urban sprawl, each providing new opportunities.

Then we started to transport species deliberately. We have the Romans to thank for brown hares and the Normans for rabbits. In the 20th century, ring-necked parakeets escaped from captivity and now adorn London’s parks and gardens.

Climate warming is bringing yet more new species to our shores, including little egrets and tree bumblebees, both of which have colonised Britain in recent years and then spread so far north that I can see them at home in Yorkshire. Convenient truth No 1 is that more species have arrived than have died out: most American states, most islands in the Pacific and most countries in Europe, including Britain, support more species today than they did centuries ago.

Evolution has also gone into overdrive. Just as some species are thriving on a human-dominated planet, the same is true of genes. Some genes are surviving better than others. Brown argus butterflies in my meadow have evolved a change in diet (their caterpillars now eat dove’s-foot cranesbill plants, which are common in human-disturbed landscapes), enabling them to take advantage of a warming climate and spread northwards.

Evolution is a second convenient truth. Many species are surviving better than we might have expected because they are becoming adapted to the human-altered world – although this is not such good news when diseases evolve immunity to medicines or crop pests become resistant to insecticides.

A third convenient truth is that new species are coming into existence. The hybrid Italian sparrow was born one spring day when a male Spanish sparrow (the “original” Mediterranean species) hitched up with a female house sparrow (which had spread from Asia into newly created farmland). The descendants of this happy union live on, purloining dropped grains and scraps from the farms and towns of the Italian peninsula. Some of those grains are wheat, which is also a hybrid species that originated as crosses between wild grasses in the Middle East.

This is not the only process by which new species are arising. On a much longer time scale, all of the species that we have released on thousands of islands across the world’s oceans and transported to new continents will start to become more distinct in their new homes, eventually separating into entirely new creatures. The current rate at which new species are forming may well be the highest ever. A future geologist will look back to the present day as a time of great diversification on Earth, as well as a time of extinction.

The processes of ecological and evolutionary change that brought all of Earth’s existing biological diversity into being – including ourselves – is continuing to generate new diversity in today’s human-altered world. Unless we sterilise our planet in some unimagined way, this will continue. In my book Inheritors of the Earth, I criss-cross the world to survey the growth in biological diversity (as well as to chart some of the losses) that has taken place in the human epoch and argue that this growth fundamentally alters our relationship with nature.

We need to walk a tightrope between saving “old nature” (some of which might be useful) and facilitating what will enable the biological world to adjust to its changed state. Humans are integral to Earth’s “new nature”, and we should not presume that the old was better than the new.

“Inheritors of the Earth: How Nature Is Thriving in an Age of Extinction” by Chris D Thomas is published by Allen Lane

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder