Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Facebook acquisition of Oculus VR

So, yesterday the entire world blew up, apparently.  My initial reaction was something along the lines of most people's and I think it went something like this

  • April 1st isn't for a few days yet
  • 'Facebook'... really?  But why?
  • Well, lets go see how the community is reacting to it and... OH MY GOD!

But you know what?  I've come to terms with it, and on the whole I believe this is a good thing.  I think that the concerns, complaints and observations people have been making deserve addressing.

A Good Thing

Oculus had (and honestly, still has) a hard path ahead of them.  They are building hardware for which the market is unproven.  Try going to a display panel manufacturer and telling them you think you're going to sell somewhere between 500,000 and 10,000,000 devices and seeing what kind of deal you get on panels.  What you get are the leftovers of hardware designed and targeted at tablets and smartphones.  To get something more specialized, like a high frequency, high-brightness, low persistence display like you need for a VR headset, you're going to be paying a pretty big premium.

Now imagine going to that same manufacturer and saying you're going to build 10,000,000 devices and create the market for them regardless.  

Imagine VR support going from a stretch goal on a Kickstarter to something that Oculus will pay a developer to implement, and has the manpower and resources to oversee, ensuring a good product.  

Imagine the Oculus SDK going from a C++ only pile of confusion (sorry guys) to a streamlined API with C, C++, C#, Java & Python bindings with tons of examples and documentation demonstrating both technical requirements and good practices.

That's what just happened, in many ways and forms.  

We had two roadmaps: plausible and impossible. This partnership means the impossible roadmap just became ‘very likely’.

Maybe you just see that as self-serving PR speak, but it's certainly better than the alternative.

So, given this, why are people so upset?  Well, I can think of (and have seen) a number of reasons.

The Dreaded Marketing Tsunami

Facebook seems to have become synonymous with an acquaintance (not friend) who keeps trying to integrate themselves into more and more pieces of your life.  A lot of people resent this or are afraid of the implications this will have for mainstream VR.

I think a lot of people are specifically afraid of this:

A terrifying vision of the future.
Although I do have to commend the creator for attempting to
 properly simulate the required projection matrix offset.

To such folks, I would say that they were deluded if they actually believed applications like this wouldn't have been created regardless.  I'd also say they were kidding themselves if they believed that all (or even most) applications would end up being like this.  Facebook or not, the rest of us will still have aesthetic standards.

VR is a pathway to people's attention, just like the web or conventional apps in general.  And just like the web and conventional apps, VR apps will cover a wide spectrum of quality.  There will be elegantly designed applications that provide a superb experience (typically ones that you pay for, like Star Citizen).

There will be entertaining freemium applications.  Some will that strike a good balance between providing a fun free experience and also giving you a reason to give them money.  Some will ceaselessly pester you to draw in your friends, hamper you with timers or try to be a pleasing front for what amounts to a vacuum cleaner of all your personal information.

And there will be crap.  Gigs and gigs of crap, as far as the eye can see.  Count the number of applications you actually use on a regular basis, on your PC and phone and compare it with the amount of crap that's available in any app store.  Moore's law may mean we'll all transferring our minds into the cloud 100 years, but Sturgeon's law means that even in your fully virtual paradise, freed from the petty needs of the physical world, you're still going to have to endure ads pestering you about why brand X is better than brand Y.

The Privacy Issue

If you're really worried about the personal privacy implications of a relationship between Facebook and Oculus, I have some unfortunate news for you.  You've already crossed the Rubicon.  I know this because you're reading this on the internet.
I am regularly asked what the average Internet user can do to ensure his security. My first answer is usually 'Nothing; you're screwed'.

If someone with money and power wants your information, they're going to get it.  Using the internet makes it easier, but even if you don't, you really can't function in modern society without opening up channels into who you are.  You have three options, really.  
Maybe you think that having anything to do with Facebook is a needless exacerbation of the problem.  That might be true.  But I don't really think that this is an issue in this instance.  I believe Facebook bought Oculus because FB wants in early on what could be 'the next big thing'.  

The Alternate History

There are a lot of different ways this could have gone down.  


The first and most obvious is that Oculus could have not made it this far.  Not an appealing end to the story for me.


Oculus could have continued on as an independent company.  I've read it suggested that they could have become their own $2 billion dollar company without outside help.  I don't feel like this is realistic.  Suppose VR took off and demand started growing.  Other companies would have wanted in on the action.  Indeed, Sony has already announced their own VR headset.  

Companies like Sony, Samsung, Amazon, Microsoft, Google and even Facebook don't need to own Oculus.  Given their sizes and working capital, each would be perfectly capable of coming up with a similar design, catching up with the state of the art, and then undercut Oculus, just by throwing money and manpower at the problem.  Let Oculus blaze the trail and take the risks, and then reap the ultimate rewards with a relatively small (to them) investment.

Maybe Oculus would be able to sue on the basis of a patent-able design, but the likelihood is that even attempting to fight one of these companies would kill Oculus on the basis of litigation costs alone.

Working alone, Oculus could easily have become the 3DFX of VR.  

Even so, Oculus VR is clearly passionate and for the most part seemed dedicated to taking that risk.  The only thing that turned them around was a dump truck full of money.  There is a point when saying 'no' goes from "I am a spirited independent who wants to make it big on my own" to "I am screwing over myself and everyone else who has placed faith in me by investing in my company".  

A different owner

There aren't a lot of companies that would have had both the potential interest and the ability to buy Oculus.  Microsoft, Apple or Sony would have been a disaster in my opinion, because it would have made the Rift far more likely to drift towards some kind of platform lock-in.  I might have liked it more if Google or Amazon had purchased Oculus, but each has its own potential for some kind of platform lock-in.  

That's not to say Facebook doesn't, but since they're not tied to any kind of hardware platform at all it feels like this is potentially a big win.  

Kickstarter 'Obligations'

A lot of people seem to believe this is some sort of betrayal of the Kickstarter backers:
And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.

While I can understand the sentiment, I still feel like this is a little presumptuous.  Unlike some Kickstarter projects, Oculus delivered on their promises to backers.  I was a backer and although I didn't pitch in $10k I did get a development kit.  Notch presumably got his developer kits, along with a chance to visit the Oculus offices.  He apparently even got a chance to partner with Oculus to create a Rift enabled version of his game, something many less fortunate developers would jump at in a heartbeat.

That completes the transaction.  Kickstarter didn't claim to offer equity in the company, which is what you need if you want to have a say in what the company does.  If you buy a hamburger from McDonalds, that doesn't give you the right to tell the board what they should and shouldn't do with their company.  If they do something you disapprove of, you can always vote with your wallet, after the fact, but if you started going around saying they shouldn't have done X, Y or Z because of your hamburger purchase, people would treat you like the tin-foil hat lunatic you were.
Or maybe 'tin-foil' hat isn't quite apropos

Even if you feel that the people behind the Kickstarter had some sort of spiritual obligation to bring VR to the masses, it's actually hard to argue that they've failed to deliver.  Tycho expresses this better than I could:
Before yesterday, The Oculus Rift was technofetish gear.  It ceased to be so in an instant.  If you want to know how you get to the future described in books, any of the futures, it happens when technology has broad social meaning.  I’m not going to tell you it’s not fucking weird.  I’m as surprised as anybody.  I don’t like the idea of a fully three dimensional banner ad anymore than you do.  But do you want to live in a society where telepresence and virtual reality are…  normalized?  This is how that happens. 

Update 3/29:

John Carmack has said basically the same thing as I did concerning independence vs acquisition:
There is a case to be made for being like Valve, and trying to build a new VR ecosystem like Steam from the ground up. This is probably what most of the passionate fans wanted to see. The difference is that, for years, the industry though Valve was nuts, and they had the field to themselves. Valve deserves all their success for having the vision and perseverance to see it through to the current state. 
VR won't be like that. The experience is too obviously powerful, and it makes converts on contact. The fairly rapid involvement of the Titans is inevitable, and the real questions were how deeply to partner, and with who. 

1 comment:

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