There are a lot of unhappy nerds in the world today. Even though I wasn’t sufficiently on board with VR to actually own an Oculus Rift developer kit, I’m still counting myself among them. My draft headline for this piece was just “Facebook and Oculus, fucking hell” which probably isn’t ideal for search engines but pretty much reflects my reaction to the news that Mark Zuckerberg’s private data harvesting empire had purchased Oculus for $2 billion USD.
It almost seems like a bad joke, or the sort of thing we toss around on the IncGamers Podcast during off-topic flights of fancy. Hey, what’s the worst possible thing that could happen to Oculus? A massive, invasive investment from a corporation that uses the word “monitization” in earnest. Ho ho … oh.
Facebook and Oculus’ major problem is that most people hearing this news aren’t thinking “oh cool, I wonder what they’ll do with this,” but “oh shit, what are they going to do with this?”
Back in the halcyon days of 24 March before we knew about the deal, the Oculus Rift was a technological device full of potential for gaming. It had a pseudo-relationship with Valve, and both parties seemed excited about the concept of ‘presence'; the sensation of being transported to another place. That’s a pretty big deal for games. Consider how thrilling it was to be visiting places like Rapture, Lordran or Venice in Assassin’s Creed 2 for the first time, and imagine similar sensations through the medium of VR (not that I’m saying Dark Souls would work as a VR game, but that kind of atmosphere could be accentuated.)
Today though, it’s about “the next social and communications platform,” it’s about “making the world a more connected place” and, of course, most of all it’s now about “how Facebook will monetize the acquisition.”
Facebook is already floating some ideas. “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,” all while logged in to Facebook, of course. And what better company to share all of these activities with? I can’t wait to have my medical history leveraged for cash and sold back to me as targeted advertising.
Maintaining a semi-active Facebook account for when it’s absolutely necessary to get in contact with someone else who uses it is just about tolerable, but I certainly don’t want to go any deeper than that.
This acquisition came as a huge surprise to many, but in light of some of Oculus’ earlier activities perhaps it shouldn’t have. Oculus had already sold out to investors back in December of 2013. The $75 million USD invested by Marc Andreessen’s venture capital firm dwarfed the amounts raised on Kickstarter, and almost certainly involved giving up substantial controlling interests in the device. Investors don’t just chuck $75 million USD at you expecting nothing in return.
And that Marc Andreessen chap? He just happens to be on the board at Facebook. First he takes indirect control of Oculus via a (relatively, in his terms) small cash investment. Then Oculus is sold to Facebook for $2 billion USD ($400 million in cash, the rest in Facebook stock) and Andreessen becomes an even richer man than he was yesterday.
Good for him, and good for the Oculus management team who can now join the ranks of the famously well-adjusted and in-touch millionaire class. Though you have to wonder how the ultra libertarian John Carmack is feeling today about becoming a de facto employee of one of the worst violators of user privacy this side of the US National Security Agency.
Bad luck if you were a Kickstarter backer hoping to show some support for a creative new gaming idea. Turns out all you were doing was giving them a leg up to become the plaything of some technology billionaires. Such is the luck of the Kickstarter draw.
But aside from self-writing jokes about virtual FarmVille, what is Facebook likely to do with the Oculus Rift? The public face of both Oculus and Facebook is busy assuring people that the company will be left alone, to operate semi-independently. In calls to shareholders, however, Facebook is already making it very clear that it has the intent to “monitize” the device with all the greedy vigour that term implies. That means virtual “product” purchases and advertising galore.
The worst case scenario is probably a closed “app store” style system where game (or social experience, or whatever) creators give a cut of every sale to Facebook. You can be sure that in this system, data would be mined and harvested and beamed back to Facebook at every possible opportunity, in order to be turned into advertising revenue under the guise of “personalising” your virtual “experience.”
Best case? They really do leave Oculus alone and the company uses its mad investment cash to implement all the bits and bobs crucial to a solid virtual reality experience Valve was talking about at Steam Dev Days. The Rift goes mainstream and hundreds of game developers clamor to contribute the next life-altering VR game. With Facebook’s history and dubious motives, I have serious doubts it will play out like this.
The Instagram purchase brought Facebook a huge user base. It could afford to somewhat leave the application alone because it got what it came for in the form of millions of people in a passionate, dedicated and “connected” community. It also crushed a potential competitor. Oculus doesn’t have that, and parts of its current, specialised user base are already abandoning ship. But what it does have, potentially, is the eyeballs of millions of future users. Facebook surely wants those eyeballs.
It may find that the problems of virtual reality will be even harder to overcome for a mainstream audience. Price is a major factor, though all that fat cash should be put to good use driving down the production costs (or, like many consoles, selling at a loss in the hope of making returns on software.) Who though, aside from nerds like us, is going to be prepared to wear those ridiculous headsets? Not to mention the ongoing problems of motion sickness. That virtual conference call isn’t going to be very productive if Chad from accounts is too busy chundering into his pin-stripes.
Maybe this type of acquisition was inevitable for Oculus. It was perhaps a naive dream to believe it could remain a relatively open PC peripheral and gain any kind of widespread traction. But of all the corporations to get into bed with, Facebook is one guaranteed to divide and enrage a significant number of the audience Oculus had already attracted. Perhaps they don’t care (though flustered PR crowd control efforts on Reddit yesterday would suggest otherwise,) but it’s sad to see another project with a certain amount of potential disappear into the corporate maw.
It’s concerning to see Palmer Luckey keep referring to this deal as a “partnership” when the acquisition doesn’t give any indication whatsoever of being about equality of power.
If VR really is going to take off this time, there will be other companies with other peripherals out there. I was never fully on board with Oculus, but this move has made the decision easy. This is where we part ways.