Yesterday, a cash-rich Silicon Valley leviathan paved the way for the acquisition of a plucky startup. As surprising as Facebook's pending purchase of Oculus might have seemed last night, that's all that really happened. As announced last night, is set to be bought by Facebook for approximately $2 billion USD, with the transaction due to take place sometime later this year in Q2 2014.
First up, the official quotes. Here's what Mark Zuckerberg and Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe had to say about the coming acquisition:
“Mobile is the platform of today," said Zuckerberg, "and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow. Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
“We are excited to work with Mark and the Facebook team to deliver the very best virtual reality platform in the world,” said Iribe. “We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning.”
And the internet went crazy.
The Oculus Rift as a gaming device has enormous potential, and I've waxed lyrical about how awesomely immersive an experience the device can offer. But for VR to be a mainstream success, it needs to look beyond games and that is hardly a new concept. Look at the media hubs that our consoles have become, the connected experiences offered by the tiny computers each of us carries in our pockets. There are reactions to this news declaring the gaming applications for the Rift dead in the water as a result of this news, but they rather sound like nonsensical tantrums fuelled by anti-Facebook hate. The key to all of this is independence -- how much leeway will Oculus be given to continue as they have done, albeit with greater financial security, resources, and opportunities?
If the initial soundbites are to be believed, it looks like there'll be a fair bit of autonomy.
"I kept coming back to a question we always ask ourselves every day at Oculus: what’s best for the future of virtual reality?" wrote Oculus co-founder and Rift designer Palmer Luckey. "Partnering with Mark and the Facebook team is a unique and powerful opportunity. The partnership accelerates our vision, allows us to execute on some of our most creative ideas and take risks that were otherwise impossible. Most importantly, it means a better Oculus Rift with fewer compromises even faster than we anticipated.
"Very little changes day-to-day at Oculus, although we’ll have substantially more resources to build the right team. If you want to come work on these hard problems in computer vision, graphics, input, and audio, please apply!
"This is a special moment for the gaming industry — Oculus’ somewhat unpredictable future just became crystal clear: virtual reality is coming, and it’s going to change the way we play games forever.
"I’m obsessed with VR. I spend every day pushing further, and every night dreaming of where we are going. Even in my wildest dreams, I never imagined we’d come so far so fast.
"I’m proud to be a member of this community — thank you all for carrying virtual reality and gaming forward and trusting in us to deliver. We won’t let you down."
That third paragraph is very telling, and it brings with it the idea that Oculus was never best placed to do this on itsown. A buyout was always going to come, the only question in the end would be who. Facebook, of course, will be concerned with social applications and the way we interact with one another, but it looks like Oculus will continue to run the way it has before, just now under a big blue banner. Facebook is not a VR company, they cannot afford to ignore the expertise that Luckey and John Carmack and the rest of the Ocuslus team will bring to the table. Indeed, they're not talking about that at all; they're talking about embracing it and flinging bundles of cash its way.
"Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences," said Zuckerberg.
"Immersive gaming will be the first, and 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. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this."
That's good news! That's the news we all want to hear. Sure, he also went on to describe virtual storefronts and commercial opportunities, but as long as that's not all that Oculus becomes, that's fine. Commercial application, not mention the possibility of donning a Rift and sitting courtside at an NBA game, or being transported to look around the Seven Wonders of the World in a classroom, or having a face to face chat with your doctor when you're miles from one another -- these are all possibilities. Sony mentioned that there'd be applications beyond gaming for Morpheus, and this ios no different. In fact, it's essential. For VR to be anything more than a pipedream, it has to break beyond video games.
That doesn't mean abandoning games.
But that hasn't stopped the backlash and kneejerk reactions starting already, from doomslingers on the Reddit boards to high profile abdications. Fans are in uproar over perceived betrayals by the company, failing to grasp that donating to a project on Kickstarter does not make you an investor. You paid for your Rift, and you got it. Oculus owe you nothing. Notch has announced that there's no way an official Minecraft Oculus project is happening now, because he finds Facebook "creepy". That mistrust is understandable -- after all, Facebook is the poster child for privacy scares and data scandals these days -- but one can't deny the pioneering development that Facebook and its initiatives have given us as well. Luckey himself admits to being sceptical when the possible acquisition was first tabled, but there's a chance here -0- one that comes with caveats -- but one that was clearly too good to pass up.
"When Facebook first approached us about partnering, I was skeptical. As I learned more about the company and its vision and spoke with Mark, the partnership not only made sense, but became the clear and obvious path to delivering virtual reality to everyone. Facebook was founded with the vision of making the world a more connected place. Virtual reality is a medium that allows us to share experiences with others in ways that were never before possible.
"Facebook is run in an open way that’s aligned with Oculus’ culture. Over the last decade, Mark and Facebook have been champions of open software and hardware, pushing the envelope of innovation for the entire tech industry. As Facebook has grown, they’ve continued to invest in efforts like with the Open Compute Project, their initiative that aims to drive innovation and reduce the cost of computing infrastructure across the industry. This is a team that’s used to making bold bets on the future."
Does that mean that Faculus... Foculus? Faceboculus? FaceRift? gets a free pass? Absolutely not. But neither should we pour scorn onto what is really a fairly standard business dealing. As with every venture that leads to a big company buying out a small company, there are always risks, yet the initial chatter suggests that little is actually going to change in terms of personnel (save for the capacity to hire more talent) or vision. But VR is going big or going home, Oculus has always maintained its desire to see VR become a mainstream medium for as many as possible. Now, with billions of dollars at its back, that might just be within reach.
This will not be a sprint, the consumer Rift is still some way off, but for VR to be more than a flash in the pan or a niche consideration, it needs an environment where a long-term strategy can flourish. Sony have and are incubating Morpheus within a system that affords their headset established software, brand loyalty, and connected, optimised devices to set it up for as strong a future as possible. The Rift has the potential to go further thanks to the open nature of development on the system. That won't change -- the potential just got bigger and broader, and writing that off here and now makes no sense at all.