The Oculus Rift was never the future of gaming, but it was certainly a fantastic promise for an exciting new aspect of the future. As has been previously reported, Facebook bought Oculus VR today for $400 million cash and stock valued at roughly $1.6 billion, and that’s not what this post is about. This is about putting aside the last year and a half of excitement and anticipation, because until a whole lot of questions about the Rift’s future are answered, it’s very difficult to view what had been VR’s champion with any kind of optimism.
Facebook is not a good company to be associated with. Its job is data-mining and selling, with everything else it does simply being a means to an end. Oculus VR, on the other hand, was a company made by techies, for techies, and the honest communication it had with its fans made it clear that it was a company run by people rather than empty suits. Unfortunately one aspect was inescapable, and that’s the bit about being a company. Companies need money when they aren’t producing much of anything, and that requires investors. The first round was provided by a highly successful Kickstater, supplemented by sales of the completed early developer kit, and then a couple of investment rounds kept the money flowing in. Oculus VR worked closely with Valve for some tech advances, sharing data back and forth, and then John Carmack joined as Chief Technology Officer. It was basically a gaming fairy tale, until the dragon used its pile of gold to buy the kingdom.
Which sounds very dramatic, but let’s be real- it’s too early to know how bad or good the Facebook purchase is going to be for the Rift. Facebook as a company is utterly untrustable, of course, but at the moment there’s the hope that the Rift can still be the thing it was supposed to be. The original plan was for a piece of video hardware that works with anything you can plug an HDMI cable into. Nails don’t care about proprietary brands of hammers that need specific licensing to operate properly, reporting home on usage and delivering vitamin supplement ads if your swing seems a bit weak today, and it’s possible the Rift can still end up like that too. Maybe.
Or maybe not, and there’s the problem. The Oculus Rift was a clear win before, if you had any interest in VR at all, and now it’s tainted by a noxious Facebook stank. Will it require Facebook integration? Will it remain a fancy monitor you strap to your face? If it does come out as the thing initially promised, will updated drivers change the terms of service in the way that Facebook is infamous for? Or, to put it another way- Can you trust Facebook?
The answer is obviously “no”. Minecraft for Oculus Rift has already been canceled because of this, and while that’s hardly an avalanche of fleeing developers it’s still also been only a few hours. The fallout from this is going to take weeks. The most worrying thing is how the Rift is being referred to by Facebook as a platform, which is a thing that, in at least the current form, it isn’t. It’s a piece of display technology, no more a platform than a tv or monitor. Yes, it has certain tech needs over and above slapping an image on the screen and calling it good, but there’s nothing proprietary about it once you’ve hooked up that video cable and gotten an image in front of your eyeballs. Making noises this early about turning it into a content delivery platform is exactly why it’s hard to trust Facebook’s vision of the Rift’s future.
Still, Palmer Luckey, Oculus VR CEO, is putting a brave face on it, answering questions on Reddit (this second link might be the more useful of the two) and holding to the “we operate independently but now with much greater resources and all is wonderful!” line. If that remains true then all is good and I’ll happily toss Facebook a couple hundred for an Oculus Rift, once the consumer model finally reaches retail and it’s been picked over and given a clean bill of health by people far more technologically inclined than I am. In the meantime, though, I can only go on the information that’s available, and very little of it is good. Oculus Rift is owned by a company dedicated to mining data in order to better serve ads, and that’s enough to almost completely dampen the massive enthusiasm I had for the product before. It’s time to let go of the excitement and anticipation of what felt like the real next generation of gaming, and maybe keep a small spark of hope alive that it will turn out ok after all.