Of Facebooks & Rifts

The internet is currently in a furor over the recent acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook (I’m sure the ink is still drying on the contract) and, while I’ve been sharing bits and pieces on various social networks, I wanted to write up my current thoughts on the matter for future reference and to encourage discourse.

Note that my opinion has absolutely no bearing on the outcome of any of the proceedings to come, but merely adds another voice to the vast echo chamber of the internet.

I’ve always been keenly interested in the idea of virtual reality. From Holodecks to Gibson, to The Lawnmower Man, VR has played an integral role in many of our most popular works of science fiction and was a fairly integral component in much of the media I consumed as a youth.

When Oculus first announced its Kickstarter, I was quick to back it. The potential of commercial-grade virtual reality being available in the near future was definitely worth the initial investment. Being wary of early-release hardware I opted not to pre-order with my donation, though I have had the opportunity to both use and develop with the hardware on various occasions since.

My experiences with the hardware weren’t revolutionary, but the potential was there and it became apparent that we were on the cusp of something that VR afficionados have dreamed of for decades: commercial grade virtual reality technology that people actually want to use.

So, on Tuesday, when it was announced that Oculus VR was being acquired by Facebook for $2B ($400MM in cash) I was pretty surprised at everyone’s outrage. I know and understand the fears and arguments against the acquisition, but if it allows, in even a small way, for VR to become more mainstream (even if the product itself fails), it is a huge win for virtual reality and encourages the progression of the technology and consumer culture surrounding that technology.

As a business, I most definitely don’t agree with Facebook’s practices and policies, especially those pertaining to privacy and data mining. As a tool that has transformed our means of communication, though? It’s incredible. Facebook’s original goal of disrupting how we interact with, share and discuss content and experiences is something that they’ve accomplished quite thoroughly and it’s helped shape and transform the way we use the internet. It seems, based on Zuckerberg’s more recent comments, that they intend to extend this philosophy by leveraging VR technology to make real the very first dreams we had about it: attending virtual events, working in a distributed virtualized office space, sex with a partner that’s on the other side of the world.

If Facebook injecting capital, resources and users into Oculus’ business means that it can become scalable, cheaper and more widely accessible, then I’m all for whatever comes as a result of it. This is the single-largest injection of capital into a VR technology ever and If things don’t go belly-up or completely sideways, this will in some way guarantee improvements in the field and the technology (even if it’s due to attrition of talented minds who go create their own products).  

So yes, large companies like Facebook mean increased bureaucracy, patent wars and endless IP disputes, but they also mean potential for the smaller companies that end up under their umbrella. And in this case I’d rather see them double-down on improving the technology at the risk of autonomy than simply fade into obscurity.

I have no idea, nor could I ever predict where this will go, but one thing is for sure: the VR rollercoaster is just starting to move and it’s going to get a lot crazier very soon.