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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“I see the world in rectangles”: Life as a Lego Master Builder

Nathan Sawaya stunned colleagues when he quit his job as a lawyer to play with Lego full-time. Now everyone from Lady Gaga to Barack Obama’s a fan.

Nathan Sawaya is describing his favourite Lego brick, shiny-eyed and grinning at the thought of it. But he’s not a child proudly displaying a beloved toy. He’s a 43-year-old former corporate lawyer, and well over six foot tall. The brick he is evangelising about is a small 1x2 socket plate with a stud in the centre of its top. He calls this a “Jumper”.

“You know your Lego lingo?” he asks, looking crestfallen when I shake my head. “It has only one stud instead of two, and it allows you to do even more detail because you can offset the brick a little bit. But in general, I focus on the rectangular pieces.”


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Sawaya is one of the world’s eight Lego Master Builders, having left his job at a New York law firm when he was 32 to dedicate his life to building Lego constructions full-time. His most striking works include a torso of a man ripping his chest open with bricks spilling out, called Yellow, a lifesize T-Rex skeleton, a two-metre long model of Brooklyn Bridge, and replicas of famous paintings, including the Mona Lisa, and Edvard Munch’s Scream.

I meet him in a dark exhibition space in a tent on London’s Southbank, where his works are lit up around us. His latest constructions consist of a series of DC Comics superheroes, so we are surrounded by expressionless Supermen flying around us, capes realistically rippling, and a full-size Batmobile with glistening batwings. His boyish eagerness aside, Sawaya himself looks like a comic book villain – a hulking figure dressed in black from top to toe, with a long black overcoat, piercing eyes and thick dark hair.


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Back in his early thirties when he was a lawyer, he would come home after a punishing day at work and do something creative – drawing, painting, sculpting with clay and wire. He soon began to experiment with Lego, constructing models out of sets he had lying around the house. His son, now 17, was never particularly interested in playing with it himself.

“Eventually I made the choice to leave the law firm behind and become a full-time artist who plays with toys,” he beams.

His family was supportive, his colleagues jealous, and his bosses confused – but it wasn’t long until Sawaya found success as a Lego artist. He has had exhibitions of his work on every continent but Antarctica, and gained some high-profile fans. When he was US President, Barack Obama posed with one of his installations – monochrome life-size men sitting on park benches in Washington – and Bill Clinton has a sculpture in his office, as does Lady Gaga in a music video.

“That is the magic of Lego,” he says of his popularity. “It has become a universal language in a way.”


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Sawaya’s Master Builder status means he can buy all his bricks directly from Lego in bulk – not possible for us Lego civilians. He used to buy sets in toy shops and on eBay when starting out; now he can email asking for 500,000 red 2x4 bricks, say, and Lego ships them to him on wooden pallets. He has six million bricks on hand at his studio in Los Angeles. “Millions of each colour and shape and size,” he says. “And they’re all organised by shape and colour.”

He works away for hours at a time in his studio, with his dogs obediently at his feet, in what he describes as a “trance”. He plans designs on special “brick paper” like graph paper, but sometimes he free-builds from his imagination. “I do often see the world in rectangles,” he says, and sometimes he even dreams in bricks.

Just like children do with Lego sets, he simply snaps the bricks together – though he does dab glue between each brick, which triples the time it takes. He describes it as “therapeutic”, but says making a mistake can be “heartbreaking” – he can lose days and weeks of work at a time. “There may be times where I start questioning my choices in life,” he smiles.


Photos: Copyright Jane Hobson

Sawaya faced snobbery from the art world when he first began approaching galleries as a Lego artist. “Oh, is that cars and trucks and little castles?” was the response. He feels it’s now a more acceptable medium. “It makes art accessible,” he says. “And in doing that, it democratises the art world a bit. It allows people to relate to the art. Everyone has snapped a brick together at one point, every child has played a little bit with Lego.

“As an artist, my role is to inspire. And what better way to do it than through a medium everyone is familiar with? If someone sees a marble statue, they can appreciate it, but very few people have marble at home they can chip away at.”

The first Lego creation Sawaya can remember making was a little house, when he was first given the toy at the age of five. He then made a city that grew to 36 square feet. When he was ten, he was desperate for a dog. His parents refused, so he tore all his creations down and built a lifesize one. “It was blocky and very multi-coloured, of course,” he says. “But it was that ‘Aha!’ moment – when I realised it doesn’t have to be on the front of the box. It can be whatever I want.”

The Art of the Brick: DC Super Heroes is on at Upper Ground, Southbank, London, until 3 September 2017.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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