When news surfaced about Facebook buying Oculus Rift, the technology that’s most advanced virtual reality recently, the Internet spontaneously combusted. Message boards lit up with claims of Oculus VR (Rift’s creators) selling out to The Man or, worse yet, of Oculus founders using altruistic Kickstarter backers to generate ROI for institutional investors. A few Oculus staffers even reported death threats. The Web’s since died down a bit, giving us time to consider what Facebook buying Oculus Rift really means.
And folks, it means bad things.
There’s no doubt Facebook buying Oculus VR means huge things for ongoing research and development (R&D) for Oculus Rift technology. With Facebook’s billions in hand, the Oculus VR R&D team and John Carmack, formerly of id Software, are bound to make huge advances in the digital immersive experience. In terms of advancing the technology, Facebook buying Oculus Rift is awesome.
But creating technology for technology’s sake is a bad idea. Every product, every advance, needs an audience and application. To date, the audience and application for Oculus VR has been gamers and gaming, respectively. And where games and gamers are concerned, this Facebook acquisition is a complete disappointment. Here are three reasons why:
1. Proliferating Perception Issues
Gamers are pasty-complexioned mouth breathers. They live in their parents’ basement wearing Cheet-O-stained t-shirts and surrounded by Mt. Dew bottles. They speak only in acronyms and can quote computer coding manuals more easily than Shakespeare. These types of statements are gross exaggerations, but that’s the perception many people in “mainstream” society have about gamers. CBS’ The Big Bang Theory last week brought the PS4 vs. Xbox One discussion mainstream, but it did so mockingly and with Sheldon — the most socially inept of the show’s main characters — as the PS4 vs. Xbox One protagonist. Did anyone happen to see how the LA Times, a major metropolitan newspaper, described Oculus’ roots?
Images of gamers zonked out with screens strapped to their heads make the current technology look goofy, but over time the technology will become less clunky.
Translation: those mouth-breathing gamers have been sitting on technology with which the grown-ups at Facebook can now go make something meaningful. Recent console generations have become more “mainstream” than any previous system. As gamers, we’ve all felt good about ourselves finally getting the respect Rodney Dangerfield never did. Or so we thought. All those stereotypes we thought we’d overcome came flooding back into our consciousness once news surfaced of Facebook buying Oculus Rift. The acquisition may have brought video games front and center, but with comments like the one from the LA Times, it’s clear that the acquisition only served to proliferate the perception issues we’d all thought we’d moved beyond.
2. Game Development May Slow Down in Favor of “Real” Work
On March 19, Oculus VR announced the launch of pre-orders for the $350 Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, which will begin shipping in July. Two days later at the Game Developers Conference, Epic Games announced a “Couch Knights” multiplayer demo for Oculus VR hardware. The Unreal Engine 4 multiplayer demo showed some game-dev heavyweight backing for Oculus Rift. Then the Facebook news hit. Let’s go back to that LA Times piece for a moment, shall we? The paper said:
To focus on a single device or a single application like gaming is to miss the magnitude of the larger trend.
Translation: gaming isn’t a big trend. It’s a fad, a fringe activity, a niche without value on its own merits. But we’ve already talked about that. What’s more telling, and perhaps more frightening, about that commentary is that game development for the Oculus VR hardware may start to take a back seat toward development of non-gaming applications.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t see Oculus as a games-first tool. According to Newsday, “Zuckerberg, for his part, sees long-term implications in the technology, for communication, entertainment and beyond.” In a conference call with discussing the deal, Zuckerberg is quoted as saying “To me, by far the most exciting future platform is around vision or modifying what you see to create augmented and immersive experiences. … Today’s acquisition is a long-term bet on the future of computing. I believe Oculus can be one of the platforms of this future.”
Notice any mention of gaming there? Any reference to Unreal Engine 4, or first-person shooters, or even the PC platform? I’m not so sheltered to that the Oculus Rift and VR technology on the whole can only be applied to games, but failing to even mention gaming gives me serious concern about Oculus’ future development for games. It should concern you, too, because as a gamer, your best bet for VR games just got sidetracked in a multi-billion-dollar way.
3. It may Stunt Sony’s work with Morpheus for PS4
If there’s a saving grace for gamers in Facebook buying Oculus Rift, it’s Sony. At the Game Developers Conference Sony unveiled its Project Morpheus for PS4. Morpheus is similar to Oculus Rift, but with less game-development support at the moment and more focus on its industrial design. Sony’s PR push with the PS4 has been focused on video games, and although it’s been treading more into the entertainment side of things lately, the PS4 will always be seen as a games-first machine. Knowing Morpheus is a peripheral for PS4 is therefore particularly encouraging in light of Oculus getting sidetracked.
But with Facebook apparently hijacking Oculus’ focus on games, there may be a spillover effect on Sony. Sony’s not unfamiliar with non-gaming functions; the company touted the PS3′s crowd-processing capabilities as a way to work on cures for cancer and other computing-intensive applications. That’s one of the reasons the PS4′s focus on games has been so refreshing. If Facebook sees the potential for something big through Oculus VR, there’s little doubt Sony will consider ways to apply Morpheus for non-gaming purposes. That’s a discouraging prospect to say the least.
So where do you stand in this debate? Outside of the “you sold out” arguments, is Facebook buying Oculus Rift a good thing? Does it give John Carmack and Co. more resources to create cool gaming experiences? Or does it stunt the potential expansion of what it means to be a “video game” by diverting Oculus’ expertise into non-gaming arenas? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.