Virtual Reality Farmville? The backlash that greeted Facebook's $2bn acquisition of VR tech company Oculus was as swift as the criticisms were predictable. Worse was to come. Markus "Notch" Persson quickly cancelled development of a Rift version of Minecraft, prompting other independent studios to follow suit. "Facebook creeps me out," he said. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey received death threats. Until the finer details of the deal are made clearer, there will be understandable scepticism about whether or not this is a good thing for the future of Oculus and, from an industry perspective, how it will impact its gaming potential. That's a perfectly natural position to adopt.
Yet, as Mark Zuckerberg's initial statement outlines, the potential for Rift under Facebook's stewardship is enormous. For starters, there's the obvious benefit of the cash investment. Luckey's company brought the first Rift prototype to E3 two years ago and two months later began a Kickstarter campaign to fund further development on the project. It hit its funding target of $250,000 within four hours and broke a million in less than two days, eventually finishing with close to ten times what it asked for. By April of this year, it had sold 85,000 units, with 60,000 buyers of the first-generation headset and 25,000 preorders for its successor, which features improved head-tracking and a 1080p display, and is due for release in August.
But demand quickly outstripped supply, and Oculus had to temporarily halt production as recently as February to obtain more components. Needless to say, one month later that was no longer a problem. Luckey and company (including games industry luminary John Carmack) can now focus on testing, experimenting and iterating upon the technology without having to concern themselves with financial or manufacturing issues.
This is evidently a good thing. The money will give Oculus freedom to grow and potentially allow it to iterate faster and more frequently. The reason this is significant is that VR is still a little way short of perfect, causing motion sickness in a number of players thanks to the latency of the nascent tech. If it shipped to the mainstream market like this, you can imagine the early tabloid scare stories about the Nintendo 3DS display causing queasiness multiplied by a factor of ten. The improved head-tracking and sharper display of the second development kit should all but eradicate any lingering issues, well ahead of its planned official launch next year, by which time it will likely have been refined yet further.
"Until the finer details of the deal are made clearer, there will be understandable scepticism"
Perhaps more importantly, Oculus's partnership with Facebook potentially opens it up to 1.3 billion pairs of eyes. The social network's staggering userbase won't all be interested in VR, of course, but what better way for word of mouth to spread? With the Rift, perhaps more than any recent piece of gaming technology, playing is believing, and the more people try it out, the wider an audience it will attract. This will, in turn, encourage yet more developers and publishers to see what they can do with VR.
We should also be excited by Rift's non-gaming applications, all of which will broaden its reach further. Zuckerberg spoke of making "a platform for many other experiences. 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 -- just by putting on goggles in your home." Already, independent creators are using Rift to recreate famous locations from TV and cinema, building explorable 3D spaces using contemporary middleware and thus allowing users to experience their favourite shows and films like never before. David Attenborough's next wildlife documentary Conquest of the Skies is being filmed to be compatible with Rift headsets. All of which makes VR instantly more appealing to a mainstream, mass-market audience, allowing it to break out from its current niche.
"Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto recently expressed doubts about the Rift's inherently insular nature"
One of the biggest problems VR currently has is that the tech isolates its wearer, and several critics have observed that this could be one of its biggest hurdles it has to leap to gain mainstream acceptance. Nintendo's Shigeru Miyamoto recently expressed doubts about the Rift's inherently insular nature, though as a spokesman for a company focused on couch multiplayer, used to thinking laterally with seasoned technology, he would naturally be sceptical. Yet in tying its future with the world's biggest social network, Oculus may have, in Zuckerberg's words, started to plant the first seeds of a new communication platform. "Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures," he said. It's certainly hard not to think about the scope it has for online multiplayer games.
Concerns about creative control remain, of course, allayed somewhat by Zuckerberg's insistence that Oculus will operate independently. He took pains to point out that while the company's technology "opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences", it is gaming that will come first. "Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there's a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We're going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games." First and foremost, Rift remains a games-centric piece of kit.
Yet in making the Rift a truly mass-market proposition, the Facebook acquisition will naturally mean more competition in the VR market, as new companies enter the fray, hoping for their own slice of the pie. Just as the advent of the iPhone prompted the smartphone boom, so the Rift should prove to be a Trojan horse for VR, as competitors promise headsets that are smaller, better, more powerful. The size factor isn't something to be easily dismissed, either: over time, VR headsets should become lighter and less intrusive, until, like Google Glass, it's as accessible as donning a pair of spectacles to enter a virtual world.
For now, Rift represents a tantalising glimpse into the future of Virtual Reality, a future that's so close we can almost touch it. "I can't wait to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us," Zuckerberg enthused. Neither can we.