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26 March 2014updated 05 Oct 2023 8:34am

Some reasons why Facebook just spent $2bn on a virtual reality headset manufacturer

What could a social network want with the Oculus Rift?

By Ian Steadman

Facebook has acquired virtual reality headset manufacturer Oculus VR for $2 billion. It’s not only a surprising acquisition, but a confusing one, too – on the surface, there’s not much that a social network might want with virtual reality hardware.

For those unfamiliar with Oculus VR, it’s responsible for by far the most impressive piece of virtual reality kit developed for the consumer market – the Oculus Rift headset. It was first shown off with a bunch of tech demos at the E3 games expo in 2012 to widespread OMGs and WTFs, with a Kickstarter campaign soon after that sought to raise $250,000 for refining it into a consumer product. That was surpassed within 36 hours; by the end of the campaign, supporters had pledged $2.4 million. The responsive, immersive tech that the Oculus team had created touched a nerve. Right now, developers can buy the second generation development kit ahead of its full consumer launch, and there are already dedicated groups of acolytes dreaming of what might be possible.

To say that the Oculus Rift fan community isn’t reacting well to this surprise might be an understatement, though. A guy on reddit posted a month ago that he saw Mark Zuckerberg in the lifts at the Oculus office, and was promptly laughed at and ignored. He’s now jokingly hailed as a prophet, while the rest of the Oculus subreddit has the feel of a funeral. Twitter is currently full of jokes about MySpace buying either the rights to Nintendo’s Virtual Boy console or to the View-Master toy, because that kind of thing sounds realistic now. Even Notch – friendly, ever-amiable Notch, creator of Minecraft – has said that Mojang isn’t bringing his game to the Oculus any more, because “Facebook creeps me out”.

But the Oculus is just a gimmick for gamers, right? No. It’s seriously impressive (read some of the gushing testimonies of those sceptics who have had a go for proof), and not just for hardcore gamers or tech geeks – just watch people unfamiliar with this kind of thing experience it without preconception, and who find it utterly joyful:

Yet the question remains: why does Facebook, a social network company, want to own a hardware manufacturer? Here are a couple of ideas:

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Facebook wants to blur the distinction between online social networks and physical ones

This is the explanation for people who believe Mark Zuckerberg. Here’s his statement on the acquisition:

Immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won’t be changing and we hope to accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there’s a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We’re going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this.

But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

For those who remember the 1990s and the first wave of VR hype, it’s tempting to dismiss this kind of thing as nonsense. But you would be mistaken. Here’s Motherboard’s Meghan Neal, describing what Oculus VR call “experience of presence”:

Rather than flying through the cosmos, the experience lets you kick it with a musician as he composes on a piano in his apartment. But it’s so realistic that when I first put the on the headset and headphones, for a split second, before I was really conscious of what my mind was telling me, I figured this guy was just sitting in front of me in the room.

The live-action video is a proof of concept for a new way of creating virtual reality art. It’s shot with a VR-ready camera and developed into seamless 3D stereo, 360-degree live-action content – a process the creators call “capturing reality”. The image was a bit fuzzy and pixelated, but still leaps and bounds more lifelike than an HD or 3D movie. Plus, it’s a movie you’re in.

As I moved my head around, up and down, behind me over my shoulder, I got a 360 view of this guy’s room, replete with records and clothes strewn over the hardwood floors, trees out the window, and a dog sprawled on the floor nearby. Granted, nothing really happened; the musician, Montreal artist Patrick Watson, was just workshopping a song on the keys (it was quite pretty) and the dog rolled around a bit absentmindedly on the floor.

Consider Facebook’s photo albums, its news feeds and its timeline (complete with a little cartoon baby marking the point each user was born, implying that future users will be tracked from birth) – follow that line of development, and the proliferaton of smartphone cameras that can capture 3D, panoramic shots, and it’s absolutely unsurprising that Facebook would want to be one of the first companies to get a stake in a technology that can near-literally allow one to relive a past memory. In this sense, acquiring Oculus VR makes as much sense for Facebook as acquiring Instagram and Whatsapp (and for a fraction of the cost of the latter) – they’re services that overlap with Facebook’s existing business model, even if it might seem a bit science fiction by comparison to photo-sharing and texting.

It’s a gamble on one possible future

Zuckerberg is smart enough to know that Facebook’s operating model won’t be hegemonic forever – Microsoft’s ongoing problems adapting Windows to a post-PC world are lesson enough here. Sure, the Oculus Rift could make existing Facebook stuff like photos a bit more fun, but there’s no telling yet what future Facebook will be, nor what platforms it will be appearing on, nor how people will interact with it.

The key example here is Google, which is currently in the midst of a mass robotics and internet of things research & acquisition spree. We’re at least a decade, maybe more, from the widespread proliferation of connected devices like Nest’s smart thermostat in homes, or self-driving cars, or smartwatches and Google Glass, but the key thing for Google is not only that it’s in a position to sell people something once they’re ready, but that these markets are defined as they grow by the products Google offers.

Ralph Koster, games designer responsible for Ultima Online, makes the most compelling case about where Facebook thinks we’re all heading:

Facebook is laying its bet on people, instead of smart objects. It’s banking on the idea that doing things with one another online – the thing that has fueled it all this time – is going to keep being important. This is a play to own walking through Machu Picchu without leaving home, a play to own every classroom and every museum. This is a play to own what you do with other people.

Oh, there will be room for games. But Oculus, in the end, serves Facebook by becoming the interface to other people online. I’d feel better about this if Facebook understood people, institutionally. I’m never quite sure if they do.

It’s about who owns the servers.

The servers that store your metrics. The servers that shout the ads. The servers that transmit your chat. The servers that geofence your every movement.

It’s time to wake up to the fact that you’re just another avatar in someone else’s MMO. Worse. From where they stand, all-powerful Big Data analysts that they are, you look an awful lot like a bot.

The real race isn’t over the client — the glasses, watches, phones, or goggles. It’s over the servers. It’s over the operating system. The one that understands countless layers of semantic tags upon every object on earth, the one that knows who to show you in Machu Picchu, the one that lets you turn whole visualizations of reality on and off.

When Facebook launches things like Home – the almost entirely forgotten Android skin that integrates Facebook updates with a smartphone’s home screen – it’s because it wants to control how people use the internet, to such an extent that, in an ideal world, it would be the internet for most people. If the borders of what the internet is, and how we interact with it, expand, then Facebook must surely expand with it.

The most pessimistic, but intelligent, analysis of this comes from the Verge‘s Joshua Topolsky:

This wouldn’t be the first time Facebook has made a play to become the internet – just think about its many privacy encroachments, search initiatives, and attacks on competing companies – but it is the first time that Facebook could legitimately own the window into the next phase of connectivity. And you can be sure that Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to own that window so you can look out onto other people’s property – he wants you looking at his property.

Just like the future envisioned in some of our best science fiction, the things to come are fantastic and exciting, but often tinged with darkness. The most breathtaking vistas can hide something terrifying – something inhuman. The wedding of Oculus VR – a company with a literally boundless vision of things to come – to an entity like Facebook gives us a taste of both, perhaps in equal measure. It’s true that no company other than Facebook could connect us together the way that we have been connected in the past decade, but it’s also true that no company could taint that experience in quite the same way. As a service, Facebook is inspiring, as a platform, Facebook is scary.

That company now controls one of the most exciting technologies of the past fifty years. A truly revolutionary product that has re-ignited a dream many felt was all but dead and gone. What it will do with that technology is the only question that remains. I submit that history is an excellent teacher.

It’s a reasonable assessment, echoed by games developers who have awoken this morning to find that the platform they were working on is now owned by a company that may have conflicting values. As Mykola Bilokonsky told the Guardian: “I don’t want to live in a future where a handful of giant companies are dividing up every piece of creative enterprise that stands a chance of reaching mass market.”

If this is too depressing, then why not enjoy this tumblr of white guys wearing Oculus Rifts? It’s quite something.

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