If you follow tech and game news, or if you know anyone who does, you probably heard yesterday that Facebook acquired Oculus VR, the makers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Then you probably heard about it a million more times in the hours that followed. We might all hate Facebook, even as we begrudgingly check it multiple times a day, but the company’s made billions by cornering the market on high-tech ways to ignore our parents. They’ve now moved on to virtual reality, with the goal of making it as ubiquitous as status updates, and game fans, developers and Oculus Kickstarters aren’t happy. There are a number of valid concerns about this deal and what it means for the future of Oculus, but there are also some undeniable advantages to having a company as powerful as Facebook behind the technology. Let’s run down a few of the pros and cons of this deal.
Oculus VR wasn’t hurting for money – they’d raised just under $100 million since first revealing the headset in June 2012, including two rounds of venture capitalist funding and $2.5 million raised on Kickstarter. But with Facebook cutting the checks there’s an entirely different level of financial security underpinning the whole project. Oculus is better positioned to refine its technology while meeting the growing demand of both developers and consumers as a part of Facebook’s empire. And as my experiences with the latest model at GDC last week indicate, there might still be a few kinks that need to be worked out before the Oculus becomes a truly viable commercial product.
For virtual reality to reach its true potential it has to cross over into mainstream awareness. That could have happened if Oculus had remained an independent company, but it’s far more likely with the backing of somebody as massive and omnipresent as Facebook. You know all those bad jokes about our moms and grandparents following us on Facebook? Get ready to update those jokes for virtual reality, because with Facebook Oculus will be able to reach every demographic.
Some of Oculus’s backers have bemoaned that the company wasn’t bought by a game company like Nintendo or Microsoft. They should take off the blinders and realize that virtual reality’s promise far outstrips the narrow domain of gaming. If perfected virtual reality could be transformative technology that changes how we learn, work, create and interact with one another. Gaming is a small subset of those possibilities, and with a non-gaming corporation behind them Oculus can dig deep into these wider applications. Mark Zuckerberg stressed the non-gaming aspect of virtual reality in a Facebook post, asking us to “imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game…or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.”
Facebook has a less-than-stellar reputation for protecting the privacy of its users – it complied with the PRISM program and infamously changed Instagram’s terms of service to let companies incorporate users’ photos into advertisements. Privacy may not be as obvious of a concern with a virtual reality headset as it is with a website that contains much of our personal information or a Kinect-style direct video feed to our living room, but Facebook has burned the public before and it’s understandable that people would be reluctant to associate with them. And it never helps to have your inventor and CEO vilified by a Best Picture nominee. That distaste for the company has already cost the Oculus one major project: Mojang, the maker of Minecraft, had been discussing an Oculus version of their hit, but cancelled those plans almost as soon as the buyout was announced. Minecraft’s creator, Markus Persson, a backer of the Oculus Kickstarter, said, “I did not chip in ten grand to see a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition. I definitely want to be part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook.” Facebook has alienated many potential users and developers over privacy concerns and unfriendly business terms. The Facebook connection could be enough to dissuade consumers from trying out VR while also driving many developers away from the Oculus platform.
This could help with non-gaming VR apps, but game developers and players are somewhat excused for fearing the worst now that Facebook owns Oculus. The type of game that Facebook is known for is very different than the type of game that people have so far been excited to play on the Oculus. Paste doesn’t take sides on the dumb “hardcore / casual” debate because those words don’t really mean anything, but there’s a difference between something like EVE Valkyrie and whatever Farmville-come-lately is currently huge on Facebook. Many consumers are worried that Facebook will try to redirect Oculus development towards games that are similar to the traditional Facebook style of socially networked, minimally engaging, asynchronous click-a-thons, and although the company couldn’t possibly be foolish enough to prioritize that model over others with the Oculus, they do like to put their stamp on their acquisitions.
Supposedly the Oculus Rift will be rebranded with Facebook imagery and a new name that reflects the new ownership. “Oculus Rift” is a ridiculous and unwieldy name, but it fits the technology in a goofy, retro-sci-fi way. Slapping that lower-case f or the Facebook logo on the headset might be a minor concession to corporate ownership, but it could also indicate a larger attempt to exert Facebook’s influence over Oculus. Will Oculus be able to retain its own culture and identity within its new corporate structure, or will it be subsumed by Facebook? Oculus has been fairly upfront with the public throughout its short life, whereas Facebook is known for changing terms of service with little advance notice. If Facebook’s penchant for secrecy trickles down to Oculus, it could change how the public views the VR company and prompt this deal’s critics to say they told us so.
Garrett Martin edits Paste’s games section. He only uses Facebook for self-promotion.