Analysis: Facebook's Oculus purchase a good thing in the long run

4 April 2014
By Danny Bradbury
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No one seemed to see Facebook's acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus coming

No one seemed to see Facebook's acquisition of virtual reality company Oculus coming

Some people have way too much time on their hands. Senior staff at Oculus, the maker of the famed Rift virtual reality (VR) headset, and their families have been getting death threats following the firm's acquisition by Facebook last month.

No one seems to have seen the acquisition coming, least of all Oculus itself, which apparently thrashed it out in a matter of days after Zuckerberg decided to take it on.

Violent threats notwithstanding, there is a large contingent of people online who are upset at the Facebook deal. Oculus was an independent company, they say, developing a new and promising technology for the benefit of the community. Now, the naysayers argue, it has been bought by a large company that has already turned its users into products, of a kind, in the process of connecting them with each other.

They worry that Facebook won't honour the virtual reality startup's original ethos to create unique and exciting immersive worlds, but will instead turn it into an extension of the company's sometimes questionable approach to end-user marketing.

"How are you going to guarantee that this partnership will not cause the Rift to become 'commercialised', so to speak," asked one commentator on Reddit. "For example, targeted ads overlaid over games, intrusive tracking of applications or programs that we run, brickwalling indie developers from the Rift, and allowing our personal information to be sold/marketed/given to Facebook?"

Indeed, Zuckerberg has said that he'd rather make the device an inexpensive piece of hardware so that he can offer services, software, advertising and virtual goods.

The pushback for Oculus, which raised over $2.5m on Kickstarter, has been immense. The creator of ‘Minecraft’, said to have been working on a free VR version of the game for the Oculus headset, famously cancelled it.

But the Rift needed this kind of cash injection to get to the point where its technology would be commercially viable. It has already seen delays due to redesign issues, and a lack of available parts.

VR is not an easy task. One of the biggest problems is latency between the movement of the headset, and the updated image. 50ms is the maximum, beyond which motion sickness can set in – and advocates suggest that sub-20ms is optimal.

Another problem is motion tracking. Unless motion is tracked perfectly, the user's experience of where they are can differ slightly from the image displayed, leading to nausea.

Virtual reality devices must solve these problems while also creating a wide enough field of vision to be attractive and convincing for users. The resolution of the images displayed must be high enough to meet modern expectations.

If that wasn't enough, they then have to manage the manufacturing of the things. This takes an entirely different logistical skill set – and a lot more money, still.

Oculus knew that viable competition from far larger players was around the corner; Sony announced Project Morpheus, its own VR headset for the PS4, with the same resolution as the Rift, six days before Oculus sold.

Facebook may well manipulate and even taint the user experience for the Oculus Rift, but this is a good thing for VR as a whole. It helps push the technology into a mainstream, which has been a difficult wall to punch through.

Companies have tried it before, from Virtuality in the early 1990s which launched several VR arcade game systems, through to Nintendo's Virtual Boy, which lasted just a year. All have failed, but they have been part of a far broader effort to develop VR into something tractable.

These kinds of evolutions happen across generations of products, rather than one. Other companies, whether Sony, Microsoft or someone else, will join Oculus in contributing to a rising wave of VR that could take another five years to gain any solid momentum.

But gain momentum, it will. Technology is finally evolving to the point where it can generate believable immersive VR experiences, and people are demanding more from their online interactions. The technology is coming to the mainstream – and whichever train it arrives on, people will want to ride it.

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