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How Mark Zuckerberg became the new face of VR

Analysis: WhatsApp, Instagram and Oculus are all wholly-owned Facebook acquisitions. But only the virtual reality pioneer is getting a rebranding push from its parent company.

Josh Miller
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Palmer Luckey was nowhere to be found.

This past week, the embattled co-founder of Oculus VR didn't attend his own annual developer conference. While Luckey languished in disgrace, a different well-known tech genius took the stage, gave the big demos and helped us imagined the future: his boss, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Zuckerberg dominated the first half of the Oculus event last Thursday, showing in great detail exactly how virtual reality devices -- those goggles that put you in a Matrix-like computer-generated world -- will be used to augment social interaction and communication on the Facebook platform. Forget your web browser or phone app: Soon you'll be able to see 3D versions of your Facebook friends, synced and gesturing to you in real-time while you "meet" together on a pixelated beach. Or the surface of Mars. Or an exact recreation of Hogwarts. (You get the idea.)

The new "Oculus from Facebook" brand was plastered everywhere inside the San Jose Convention Center.

Josh Miller/CNET

And outside the keynote, practically every single instance of the "Oculus" name -- on every demo station, every banner and even the front marquee of the San Jose Convention Center -- had the words "from Facebook" emblazoned right after it in big, bold letters.

To some attendees, it looked like Facebook was taking over.

"Is it going to be the Facebook Rift next year? I don't know," said Keith Kaisershot, a VR developer attending the conference.

If you haven't been following the saga of Oculus, "taking over" might sound like a strange way to describe the company's relationship status. Facebook already owns Oculus, after all, it paid $2 billion for the company in 2014. But Facebook's moves at the show could signal a new, more corporate direction for the biggest name in VR. (While rivals Sony and Valve also share the high-end market, Oculus jump-started the current wave of interest and investment in VR.)

When Facebook originally purchased Oculus, it promised the pioneering VR firm could stay independent -- to the point it could even keep its own separate headquarters in Irvine, California, almost 400 miles south of Facebook's home base in the Bay Area.

The biggest show of faith from Facebook might have been keeping Palmer Luckey front and center. Luckey, whose boy genius backstory helped propel the Rift's original Kickstarter campaign to success, has been the outspoken public face of Oculus since day one.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey.

Josh Miller/CNET

Since 2012, when the Oculus Rift VR headset was little more than a pair of ski goggles duct-taped to a smartphone, Luckey has been involved in every public Oculus event. (In classic Silicon Valley tradition, a 17-year-old Luckey reportedly created the original Oculus Rift prototype in his parents' garage.) He's always there giving demos to press, chatting up developers or sharing the latest innovations on stage. In fact, the first Oculus Connect developer conference in 2014 literally included a birthday party for Luckey -- who turned 22 on the first day of the event.

For many, Luckey's continued presence after the Facebook acquisition suggested that Oculus would stay true to its crowdfunded roots. When Facebook first announced the $2B purchase in 2014, vocal backers spoke out against the move. Some were angry because they felt their money helped line Luckey's pockets, after he originally promised the company wouldn't sell out.

But others were concerned that Facebook wouldn't respect VR users' privacy, or might dissolve the Oculus brand. "People freaked out about the Facebook buyout," remembered Gerald McAlister, another VR developer in attendance this year.

CNET tried this early, tape-covered prototype of the Oculus Rift in January 2013.

Josh Lowensohn/CNET

After the buyout, Luckey was the one defusing much of the hate by being a constant vocal presence on various social platforms, most prominently Reddit. He insisted that Facebook would let Oculus "operate independently, on our own vision." Even though Oculus was technically part of a big corporation, Luckey's constant support of indie developers let Oculus keep its grassroots image.

But Oculus also got in trouble, repeatedly, over optimistic promises Luckey made to the developer and user community. For instance, Luckey said the Oculus Rift would be cheaper and better as a result of Facebook's investment. (It got better, but the price nearly doubled compared to early developer kits.) Luckey suggested that he (and Oculus) wouldn't keep people from playing Oculus games on other headsets, then got caught doing just that. (Oculus later decided to remove the DRM lock, and promised not to do it again.)

Whenever Luckey goes silent on social media, VR industry followers joke that maybe Facebook decided not to let Luckey talk anymore.

Which brings us back to this year's Oculus Connect -- where Luckey was nowhere to be found.

Luckey admitted donating money to Nimble America, an secretive group which asked online Trump supporters to fund their anti-Clinton billboards.

Nimble America

This year, there's an obvious reason Luckey isn't attending the show. He was caught lying about the extent of his involvement with an anti-Clinton smear group, and still hasn't explained himself. "Palmer decided not to attend, did not want to be a distraction," Oculus VP Nate Mitchell told CNET. (Oculus has repeatedly confirmed that Luckey is still an employee.)

Update: Palmer Luckey left Facebook in March 2017.

Mitchell suggests we shouldn't read too much into the "Oculus from Facebook" branding, that the team is still very much autonomous. "We're a part of Facebook, we wanted to bring the Oculus and Facebook brands even closer together," he explains, without explaining why that would be good.

The original Oculus VR headquarters -- in Irvine, California -- was on the fourth floor of the left tower in this Google Street View photo.

Google Street View

Gartner analyst Brian Blau says something similar: "It doesn't say that there's anything wrong with the brand, but ties it all back to the corporate mothership, if you will." He suggests that in an attempt to compete with software giants like Google, the social network is finding itself with a increasingly complicated set of individual properties (Oculus, Instagram, WhatsApp), and may be trying to tie them all together to present a single face to the world.

That might make sense, but we couldn't find a single prominent mention of Facebook in the WhatsApp or Instagram apps or at their websites -- even though both are, like Oculus, wholly owned subsidiaries of Facebook. Only Oculus seems to be getting this treatment.

Facebook didn't reply to a request for comment about the new branding.

Anshel Sag, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy, had another take: "Big decisions are being made by Facebook, not Oculus. Even though that was already the case, now they're making it publicly clear."

Indeed, Oculus closed its original Irvine, California headquarters last year, after convincing employees to relocate up north. It's no secret that much of Oculus, including the executive team, now work at Facebook's global headquarters in Menlo Park.

This photo of Mark Zuckerberg -- who made a surprise appearance at a VR-focused Samsung presentation -- became quite the meme.

Facebook

If Facebook were to completely devour Oculus, would that be such a bad thing, though?

Aside perhaps from one Orwellian photo op last February, Zuckerberg seems to "get" VR, and appears to have exciting plans for the technology. He's certainly investing a lot of money in the idea -- an additional $250 million for new VR games, movies, and educational apps this year alone.

"Doing all the things [Oculus] is doing now wouldn't be possible without all that [Facebook] money," says McAlister. "Facebook's doing a good job of staying hands-off...they're offering integrations, but not forcing you to use them," he said.

Heck, it's not clear that even those who were angry in 2014 would still be angry at Facebook today -- particularly those vocal Kickstarter backers, who each got an Oculus Rift headset free of charge. (Smart move, Facebook.) "For me, it's a little scary," Karl Krantz, founder of the long-running Silicon Valley Virtual Reality meetup group, said of Zuckerberg's commanding presence on stage, "but I don't think other people had that impression."

While Gartner analyst Blau is actually a little wary of Facebook's increased investment in VR -- saying the investment is "in lieu of developers creating that revenue themselves" -- he also sees the enhanced Facebook presence as a sign of maturity.

"Oculus is growing up, they are becoming more serious about the business...they've shipped products and all of a sudden it's not 'let's build it and see what happens,' it's 'we've shipped it and we need to make it work.'"

Don't be surprised if Mark Zuckerberg is the new face of VR. Whatever Palmer Luckey did or didn't do, one thing seems clear: Oculus is shedding its grassroots image for good.

Full disclosure: My wife works for Facebook as a business-to-business video coordinator.