What a year it's been for Oculus Rft. We conjectured that Sony might team with it, then Sony actually announced a rival to it, underlining that OR's next-gen Virtual Reality wares are not just a niche interest or whim. Now the company and its Virtual Reality headsets have been snapped up by Facebook.
For many, the $2 billion purchase was a WTF moment, but it shouldn't have been.
Every virtual-reality conversation, prediction or eulogy at this year’s Game Developers Conference was not about the games that VR would bring, but the experiences it would open up for all. Oculus VR told us it would all be about music videos, and how once it cracked filming and interacting with that rather profitable corner of the market, its headset would be a mass-market concern. PlayStation, meanwhile, having already built a Mars demo with NASA for its Daft Punk-esque Project Morpheus VR prototype, talked at its keynote about consumers trying out hotel rooms before booking.
“Imagine visiting your house when you’re not even there!” they cried. “They’re going to have these things in schools!” they cooed. “Imagine watching a football match from a seat within the stadium without having to brave the horrors of public transport,” I dared myself to imagine. So why the shock that Oculus VR has become the latest fledgling business to find itself sucked into Mark Zuckerberg’s big start-up hoover? Why the surprise that a non-gaming company has put $2 billion worth of chips on the poster-boy of the VR movement? Virtual reality certainly feels more of a punt than instant messaging and retro image filters, but, the truth is, Oculus’s future was laid out clearly for all to see at its GDC private press day – you just had to peer closely enough into the 1080p crystal ball strapped to your face.
When we first tried the Kickstartered virtual reality headset last year, it was in a tiny back room at LA’s Convention Center that could pass for a broom cupboard if you could find it, and the demos were playing to the pure gaming core: a swords-and-sorcery-style first-person castle exploration, Doom 3’s gun-toting carnage, and Eve Valkyrie’s intergalactic dogfights that now pepper Project Morpheus. W
When we revisited earlier this month, the scene had shifted. First through the door on a pre-GDC private viewing at a nearby gallery full of modern art as impressive as the new tech that surrounded it, we found three very different Oculus demo stations. Firstly, there was Tuscany HD, a visually impressive update on the original experiential holiday villa that made grannies cry on YouTube the world over. It’s a demo that is the simply experience of travelling to part of the world you’ve never been and looking around, taking in the virtual air and pseudo-smelling the HD roses. Secondly, there was Elemental Tower Defence, where you watch a two-player board game play out from a towering perspective, able to peer around the pieces from all angles while your competitor’s movements remained obscured. Thirdly there was Couch Knights, a fully reconstructed family living room playing stage to an AR-esque battle of the children. We were told as we manoeuvred it that Oculus had a multiplayer music demo running in its office that let multiple users play as a band together, in a virtual space, no matter where they were in the world.
So that’s virtual tourism, board games, multi-person interactions in a familiar suburban setting and the music industry checked. If indeed virtual reality is the future, how could Facebook resist? With Oculus in tow, people could be in their friends’ holiday photos and videos while playing Words With Friends in real space, with many, many other media and commerce opportunities still burgeoning.
The truth is while the last two weeks have seen virtual reality steal tech’s headlines, this is a story that has been written over the past year. Indeed, a sighting of Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg at Oculus VR’s office was posted on Reddit more than a month ago, but this goes even further back. It was widely rumoured that PlayStation and Oculus could be doing some kind of deal in the summer of last year, as staff from cloud pioneer Gaikai ended up on both sides of the fence as it was bought out by Sony (indeed, two key Oculus players, Brendan Iribe and Nate Mitchell, are former Gaikai guys).
When we talked to Sony Worldwide Studios boss Shuhei Yoshida at E3, he confirmed they had multiple Rifts in the PlayStation offices and that they were big fans. What we didn’t realise at the time was they also had a shedload of their own headsets, in various states and builds, being optimised with their own Move motion-tracking tech. At T3 we even made a lovely render video of just what a PS4 Rift could look like and from then on this alleged VR headset hybrid was supposedly going to be unveiled at every game show since. In fact, sources have confirmed to us that Tokyo Game Show 2013 was more than pencilled in but then pulled. Yet when PlayStation finally went public at GDC, it was with its own piece of kit, and its own roadmap.
Similarly, Microsoft patented VR headset plans this year and, in Kinect 2, has an advanced motion tracker that may be the bane of privacy-hungry gamers’ lives, but will be the envy of VR manufacturers. With such heavy hitters making such big noises in the space, Oculus was always going to have to pal up with a partner that has big pockets. Some will point to Oculus VR already having over $100m worth of funding in its wallet already, and scream for independence, yet PlayStation recorded revenues of $4.4bn in the last quarter alone; Microsoft as a whole $24.5 billion. If VR was to become a weapons race, as Rift inventor Palmer Luckey alluded to when he said they needed to move on from their reliance on smartphone technology, Oculus needed more. Sony has several divisions of display, audio and wearables R&D expertise to cherry-pick from, as it declared at the Morpheus unveiling.
Whether Facebook proves to be the right partner for Oculus, only time will tell, but it will also be down to your expectations of VR. Financially, it seems like a very good return on a product that can, and has, been replicated and is still yet to prove itself as a mainstream concern. Oculus won raves from the gaming and tech press alike – we even handed Luckey the Innovation of the Year award at last year’s Golden Joysticks – but the casual market remains untapped.
For those who simply don’t like the Facebook connection – Minecraft creator and Kickstarter of the original Rift, Markus ‘Notch’ Persson has already cancelled his game on Oculus in response – it’s a harder pill to swallow. But there aren’t many companies that can outgun Sony and Microsoft financially, and certainly not in the gaming space – Google is focused on its own facial wearable right now, and VR is too speculative and rough around the edges for Apple.
If you wanted virtual reality to be The Future, this deal undoubtedly makes that more realistic, with the resources, exposure and investor expectations now at Oculus’s disposal and on its shoulders. If you’re a gamer or early adopter, you may feel sold out, but virtual reality was always going to be about more than just games. It’s what gaming does in response to this that could be the most interesting development.