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Oculus and Facebook: On which side of the Rift are you?

by Zaid Kriel (Zaid)  Posted Thursday, March 27, 2014 8:49:00 AM

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By now you’re probably aware of the fact that Facebook has purchased Oculus, the company behind the Rift VR gaming headset, for $2 billion; $400 million in cash and the rest in stocks. By now you also probably know that people are really, really upset by this.

When I first heard the news I was fully in that camp as well. But a couple of hours have passed since the news broke and by this point, I’m kind of OK with it. I’m not ecstatic about it, but I’m not particularly broke up about it either.

My sense on the whole thing is that most people aren't so much upset that Oculus ‘sold out’, but that Oculus ‘sold out’ to Facebook. 

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Despite its ubiquity, Facebook is not a particularly well liked company, with technophiles generally and gamers specifically. Primarily, this disdain stems from people’s perception that Facebook cares little about protecting the personal information of its users and is much more interested in how it can use that information to make money. Wikipedia has a fairly lengthy page on peoples’ issues with Facebook, if you care to read it, but long story short, people hate Facebook. 

Gamers specific issue with Facebook taking command of Oculus was spelled out quite succinctly by Minecraft creator, Markus “Notch” Persson in a lengthy blog post he wrote bemoaning the purchase.

According to Notch, “Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers, and nothing but building user numbers. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build.”

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That’s what the supporters of the Oculus Rift are really concerned about, that Facebook will turn the Virtual Reality dream into just another way to access social media, instead of the apotheosis of the video game experience everyone dreamed it would be.So when Facebook boss man Mark Zuckerberg says that “there might be advertising” during a shareholders conference call discussing the acquisition that just adds another negative to a situation that people already aren't happy with.

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However let’s consider the positives. Mark Zuckerberg is not a stupid man. He has to know if Facebook were to drastically change the direction of the Rift from gaming device to social media application tool, no one would buy it. The gamers would snub it, because it wouldn't be a gaming device anymore and everybody else would ignore it, because their social media is already easily accessible to them by different means.

In order for the Rift to be successful, it has to start with the gamers, because for everyone else it would be a novelty, a gimmick. Zuckerberg knows this, and it’s for this very reason that Facebook will likely leave Oculus to carry on, business as usual. The Rift thing just won’t work if it’s done any other way.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey took to Reddit offering assurances that the company will still be operating independently and that Facebook's worse habits wouldn't become part of the Rift. Wrote Luckey, “Oculus continues to operate independently! We are going to remain as indie/developer/enthusiast friendly as we have always been, if not more so. This deal lets us dedicate a lot of resources to developer relations, technical help, engine optimizations, and our content investment/publishing/sales platform. We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive.”

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In addition Luckey makes the very good point that all that Facebook money means that Oculus can make decisions based on what’s best for VR and not have to concern themselves with revenue. Being able to focus on the work at hand, without the distraction of where the next pay cheque is coming from is an enviable position for any company to be in.

Companies being taken under acquisition and continuing to operate independently aren't unheard of. Google did it with Motorola. General Motors did it with Saab. Disney did it with Marvel.

While a lot of what Luckey wrote in the Reddit post has the strong whiff of PR spin, there is no concrete reason to disbelieve him.

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The other positive to come out of this is one of exposure. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is making front page news, and not just within the tech and gaming space. VR technology is becoming a mainstream talking point thanks to this. A new and innovative technology like this needs all the positive spin it can get and the fact that a large corporate has enough faith in it to invest $2 billion comes as a massive vote of confidence.

By virtue of this sale, Oculus Rift has already started it's marketing campaign and from this point forward, if people  - the non-gamers, the non-technophiles - think VR headsets, it won't be Sony's Project Morpheus or Avegant's Glyph they think of. It will be Oculus Rift.

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I don’t know if Facebook will ruin Oculus, but I’d like to think that Mark Zuckerberg is smart enough to know that leaving the company to its own devices is the smartest move here. I’d like to think that Palmer Luckey and John Carmack are passionate enough about VR to not partner with someone that would poison that passion. The fact is, no one knows how this will go.

Facebook could ruin Oculus Rift, but they could just as easily be saving it. On the balance of probability there's no 100% way to determine which way this will go. So as cliché as it sounds, the best thing to do, is to wait and see.

What's your take on it? Like or Dislike?

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Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not MWEB Connect (Pty) Ltd 



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