Last night we felt a great disturbance in the world of technology. It was as if a million gamers suddenly cried out in anger. The reason? Oculus VR, the company behind the Oculus Rift, had been acquired -- not by a video game producer nor a publisher nor even a console maker. It was Facebook that wrote the check.
The Oculus Rift is the low-cost but high-quality headset that stood poised to finally make virtual reality not only good but accessible. For gamers old enough to remember the '90s, it's the fulfillment of decades of waiting. For younger gamers, the Oculus inspired the same sort of anticipation I felt 20 years ago. But this time the result, something good you can afford to buy and use in your home, felt tantalizingly close.
Or it did feel close, at least. The acquisition ended that hope in the minds of many. What was an awesome gaming device suddenly became a "product," a tool for a corporate profit engine that we begrudgingly fuel with our personal information, feeding it in by the shovelful and hating ourselves for it all the while.
But is this news really so bad? Let's take a look.
Gaming: Broader horizons, lower quality
Speaking broadly, if you consider yourself a "serious" gamer -- a term that is increasingly impossible to define, by the way -- this acquisition is bad news. We've already seen some fallout, with a series of indie game developers pledging to shelve their anticipated Oculus support. Minecraft creator Notch is the biggest of the bunch, but he won't be the last.
While this reaction is somewhat alarmist and a bit premature, it is not without reason. There have been many hugely successful games that use Facebook as a platform, and developers are well aware of that. The problem is that all of those games are looked upon with derision by those aforementioned serious gamers. (This is a group I count myself in, for the record.) For us, the Oculus experience just shifted from shooting foes and flying jets to mindlessly crushing candy and managing superdeformed farm animals.
With this acquisition, it's believed that we'll see a lot more of those sorts of casual games on Oculus VR devices than we would have otherwise. However, if Oculus shipped an amazing product and sold millions and millions of headsets, if it broke out of that "serious" gamer crowd on its own, we'd be in the same boat. We'd see the same sorts of games. This acquisition simply makes that mass-market appeal an inevitability. The problem is, that sort of candy-crushing gameplay now feels like it will be the goal, rather than a side effect.
Though an effectively lower barrier of entry does mean that lower-quality content will slip through, it's important to remember that high-quality content isn't excluded. There are so many awful games on mobile devices that it's tempting to write off those platforms as a whole, but there are some real gems, too. Does an expected preponderance of miserable social/casual games really mean Oculus VR won't be able to field successful, innovative, and exciting titles from developers, both large and small?
Virtual Worlds: Moving past Second Life
If you think of Second Life as a haven for furries and griefers you're not wrong, but it didn't have to be that way. The idea of a virtual world, perhaps most famously popularized by Neal Stephenson's Metaverse in "Snow Crash," is a good one. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that it's an inevitability that we'll all use a service like this at some point -- assuming we live long enough, anyhow.
Second Life launched in 2003, straining slow Internet connections and offering a service that was compelling in theory but frustrating in practice. Casual users either balked at the concept or quickly ran out of patience. Only those with a strong interest in exploring the virtual, with a real passion for escapism, stayed around. It was a niche in a niche, in other words.
With Oculus VR, Facebook could look to create something like this that's approachable, that's fun, and, critically, something with enough of your friends on board to make it worth visiting. It doesn't take more than a moment's pondering to envision your Facebook profile becoming a sort of home, photos you share hanging on polygonal walls, games you play taking place in virtual stadiums, and so on. Basically what PlayStation Home wanted to be. Home failed because it was a distraction, an extra, annoying layer on top of the games that people wanted to play. With Facebook, people already come there simply to waste time. Why not make that experience engaging?
New Interfaces: Looking up from the desktop
Numerous studies show that employees are liking and clicking away during the workday, sometimes for hours at a time. That contributes hugely to the traffic metrics of this particular social-networking service, while serving as an escape from the daily grind for those workers. A virtual experience would be seen as another logical step in such escapism, but strapping on a VR headset at work could be a clue to your manager that you're not focusing on that TPS report like you should.
That doesn't have to be the case if we rethink the desktop. I've tried numerous head-mounted displays over the years, and some of the most compelling have been the ones that don't promise virtual worlds but simply offer a better way to work with computers. I sit here in front of a pair of 24-inch LCDs, zillions of pixels in each, yet still I constantly flip between windows and tabs all stacked atop each other. With six monitors I'd do a lot less Alt-Tabbing, but that's a lot of weight, electricity, and cost.
Why have any monitors at all? Strap on a headset and you could have a single virtual monitor that would do a drive-in theater proud. There are plenty of technical challenges here (display resolution being a primary one), but with pixel density advancing the way it is, this sort of thing is very possible. With the acquisition, Facebook is now poised to be a player when this happens, not a follower.
This extends beyond just the desktop. The implications for education are huge. How many words in how many languages are instruction manuals forced to splay out just to explain how to do a very simple thing? What if you could just see how it's done in 3D? A company today wouldn't bother making the investment because access to such technology is so limited. But if everybody had one...
The 'indie' problem
If you're a gamer, there's absolutely reason for concern here. If you're a human being who loves to speculate about the future, there's absolutely reason for optimism here. Most importantly, there's a need for patience here. For all we know, Mark Zuckerberg is simply the most serious gamer on the planet and this investment serves only to make sure that Oculus VR will stay healthy long enough to deliver an amazing product with amazing games and nothing more.
To me, this feels a bit like what happens when your favorite local band gets signed and puts out a major label record with overwhelming production values. You saw them live when they were a little rough, when the bassist couldn't always keep up and the lead singer's dancing was excessively spastic. You bought T-shirts and albums and maybe even chipped in a donation when their van broke down. Now, they're huge, and they're too busy filling stadiums to write the kind of songs that brought you to them in the first place.
Instead of being a niche product funded by dedicated fans who only want compelling games, the Oculus Rift now seems destined to be a product (perhaps even a service) for the mass market. But remember: a change in ownership doesn't have to compromise quality. The Rift could still be a great product created by talented people with real passion. Popular bands can make great music too -- even if those who knew them back when sometimes hate to admit it.