I’ve played wizard chess against a demon king. I’ve had space ship battles that rival Star Wars. I’ve “sat” in a virtual movie theater with my actual butt planted firmly in a chair in a back room at a technology conference. I’ve even ascended Game of Thrones’ towering wall—and fallen down the other side. I’ve used Oculus Rift.
Up until yesterday I would have said with absolute certainty that Oculus Rift maker Oculus VR was crafting the future of entertainment. But yesterday the company announced it will be purchased by Facebook for $2 billion, and now I’m not so sure.
The Oculus Rift virtual reality headset began life as an ambitious hypothetical on Kickstarter, where users enthusiastically gave creator Palmer Luckey millions of dollars to get started. Fast forward a year or two, and by 2014 Oculus VR had received $100 million or so in funding from actual investors.
Now those investors have been rewarded with massive returns from the Facebook deal, and those who backed the headset on Kickstarter when it was still just an idea get nothing. Those people are not happy, but their ire shows that they fundamentally misunderstood what they were doing when they gave Oculus money through the crowdfunding site. They were making donations, not investments. That’s how Kickstarter works.
But there is legitimate reason for Oculus fans to feel betrayed by this deal. The Oculus Rift was so compelling in part because it represented an independent technological future untethered to big companies, ad dollars, and “the man”—things that Facebook, despite its infamous humble beginnings in Harvard dorm rooms, now embodies.
The top post on Reddit this morning juxtaposed a 2012 quote from John Carmack, who created the classic game Doom and joined Oculus VR in 2013 as CTO, with a more recent one from Oculus CEO Brendan Irebe. Back then Carmack was excited about what hacker and DIY communities would be able to do with Rift. Now, after the Facebook announcement, Irebe is leaning on buzz words like “communication,” “sharing” and “social experiences” without saying much of substance at all.
Oculus was created by someone was was simply enthusiastic about virtual reality and saw a way to make it actual reality. Now they fear that it will become just another way to check your news feed has some of Oculus’s former supporters crying out in anguish and canceling their Oculus projects.
But that may be an overreaction. Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg writes on his site that he doesn’t want to change Oculus; just accelerate it. He’d be stupid to do otherwise, and anyone who knows the guys behind Oculus knows they wouldn’t sell out unless they could continue to do things their way. So one can hope that everything will be fine, and it probably will be.
Either way, given the number of competitors that are popping up—both from big companies like Sony and from smaller creators—it seems the age of virtual reality is really here, even if Oculus was nothing more than its herald.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)