Others see a rift in the lute
4,185Late on Tuesday my Twitter feed exploded. A relaxed evening of people sending Instagrams of their dinners and discussing the impish behaviour of my house rabbits was rudely interrupted as Facebook announced that they had bought Oculus. Out of nowhere the social networking giant had stumped up $2b (a combination of cash and shares) for the fledgling VR company. Tweets exclaiming shock at the deal streamed past, swiftly followed by confusion, doubt, cats, concern, and, inevitably, rage, the Internet’s favourite emotion.
My initial thought was a selfish one. Would the buyout shunt the release of the consumer version of the Rift even further down the line? Ever since I had first tried the headset last year I’d been taken by its immersive qualities, I had survived the worries of motion sickness and loved being surrounded by the digital world. However, knowing exactly what early hardware’s like I didn’t want to settle for a devkit. I wanted a final version, a sleek, polished edition that has the fewest quirks possible and one that I don’t have to jury rig. Between the potential internal ramifications of the takeover and the recent announcement of a second version of the developmental Oculus Rift, where does it leave us consumers?
I’ve always found it curious why no consumer version has ever been touted, even an exploratory version 1.0 that would get superseded almost instantly. They have a team of great minds working behind the scenes, pushing latency and improving resolution with a feverish determinism usually only seen in small indie teams. Oculus have high standards and I can understand why they are wary of releasing too soon and with model inferior to that which they know is possible. The world has rejected VR on more than one occasion and so they are intent on creating the most refined hardware possible to ensure this doesn’t happen again.
Yet this strategy seems to run against the modern world’s approach to hardware. If we look at Apple’s production line of iPads and iPhones new hardware is pumped out on an annual basis, if not quicker. Consumers today have accepted that (or resigned themselves to) businesses not allowing the dust to settle before selling an oh-so slightly shinier version less than a year later. The advancement in tech devices arguably still progresses just enough each year for people to justify dropping yet another £500 on what is essentially the same product. Imagine those incremental advances in the Rift, as is already proven by the latest Crystal Cove model.
Of course that’s wishful thinking as no matter how much we perceive the device to be a runaway success that will sell by the container, that success still only exists within our little sphere. For Apple, a factor in being able to pump out new versions with such regularity comes from an eager global market and the economies of scale that brings. For the first quarter of this year alone a staggering 51m iPhones and 26m iPads were sold. By comparison, as of Christmas, only 40,000 dedicated enthusiasts in total had taken the plunge with Oculus Rift, and whilst you could argue that there’s a larger market out there it is nowhere near durable enough to sustain multiple versions just yet.
Which is even more interesting when we consider Sony’s newly announced Morpheus, they’re own VR headset designed for use on the PS4. By most accounts it features a far lighter and sleeker design; boasts a similar feature-set to that of the Crystal Cove, including head tracking; though it suffers from a reduced field of view and inferior screen quality, opting for LCD as opposed to the Rift’s OLED. By the spec sheet alone it’s better in some areas, worse in others, but there’s no denying that it’s competition. Of course they exist on different platforms but they don’t have to be plugged into the same device to be an either-or option for buyers.
How many virtual reality headsets will you want in your living room? They are by no means small devices and I doubt you’ll lob them under your coffee table in the same manner I do my dualshock when I’m done with Battlefield. They’ll cost as much as the console itself and deserve a little respect. As such do you really want an Oculus Rift, Sony Morpheus, Nintendo Virtual Boy 2, Microsoft Kinectwear, and an Apple iFace all hung on your wall as though trophies from a cybernetic big game hunt? Will Mad Catz produce what to all intents and purposes is a hat rack for your living room? I know my wife won’t be pleased either way and at some point most of us will have to make a choice defined by platform, cost, and storage.
The introduction of Morpheus is definitely a positive. It has created further buzz around a growing sector, highlighting the evolution of the technology, but in addition it could have forced Oculus’ hand as it no longer has said sector to itself. When you’re the only producer in a specialist area you can take your time and polish your wares to a standard that you’re happy with. Why release anything before you’re ready as you know there’s no one out there who can better your creation? The trouble with technology is that it’s always improving and if you just wait then there will be a better/faster solution in a year’s time. Sony have ended any complacencies Oculus may have had and has highlighted that for all the good will in the space that this is still a business. There will be a huge win for whichever company manages to get their product to market first, no matter the differences between the two.
Whether Luckey and Carmack saw this coming, we’ll never know. Up against a corporation like Sony, Oculus would have been considered a minnow. Though having raised a total of over $90m in funding since its 2012 inception for development, production and distribution, that is nothing compared to the stature of the Japanese multinational. Each Rift is estimated to cost between $100-200 to assemble, and although I’ve watched enough Dragon’s Den to realise you can get advances and loans against orders, that eats a great deal into the capital raised. To scale up for mass production, to fund the level of research you’re after you need someone with deep pockets behind you. Someone like Facebook.
The mass market dream of Oculus prior to this buyout would have been the industry’s ultimate feel good story but in the cold light of day it was never realistic. In much the same way as OnLive and Gaikai brought into the spotlight streamed gaming, neither had the cash flow or business plan to take that to the next level. Ironically, in terms of this discussion, Sony gave OnLive the lifeline to realise their potential whilst Gaikai fell by the wayside. Facebook may not have a track record of shipping physical products but they have enough money and no doubt connections to make this happen for Oculus.
The timing of the deal coupled with its swiftness appear too suspiciously close to Sony’s reveal to be pure coincidence, but it seems the speed of this shotgun marriage has not left Oculus wanting. Speaking to the Wall Street Journal, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe has said his primary concern was ensuring his team remained independent and had enough capital to invest in compelling content. He assures onlookers that Mark Zuckerberg shares that philosophy, hence the short engagement. For the time being I can see no reason to doubt this call for independence, either. Recent acquisition WhatsApp still appears branded in the same old way and by all accounts nothing has changed for the end user. With this Facebook has a precedence. Takeovers needs to strike a balance between integrating your working practises into the new company and not upsetting the current incumbents so much that you spoil what you have bought. Given the highly technical wizardry going on in Oculus I doubt Facebook would want to endanger their investment.
So Oculus have financial security and a platform from which to build, but what do Facebook get out of this as profits on hardware are notoriously slim? Their purchase of WhatsApp seems far more straight forward: they bought them for the users. $2b for 40,000 users seems a little steep and so it must be instead for the potential.
In a call to investors Zuckerberg stated “if we can make this a network where people are communicating, and buying virtual goods, and there might be ads down the line... that’s where the business could come from.” No doubt they can envision a future where we all wear headsets to chat across the Internet and so want to be in on the ground floor of the next big thing. That’s quite a gamble, however, given the trend for smaller, discreet devices such as Google Glass, but knowing how big business works there will probably be a few juicy patents tied to the company too.
The more hysterical out there will prefer to focus on the “ads” comment, fearing that in the middle of Team Fortress 2 your health bar will be switched out for a Subway promotion, but that’s a threat that has hung over us ever since Crazy Taxi featured real retail stores way back and has come to little. That is not to say we shouldn’t be wary. I doubt that the Rift when it launches will see me hand over all possible personal information in return for its usage, but I’m waiting to find out what the gotcha is. The thought of the Facebook as we know it today releasing a piece of hardware that has nothing to do with its social network doesn’t ring true.
Some have taken this wariness to an extreme. Vitriol is in no short supply, and no more pronounced than from Notch who has yoinked Oculus Rift support from Minecraft citing that Facebook was “creepy”. Equally so those who initially backed it on Kickstarter and are now mighty peeved by the situation. They hold a sense of ownership to a brand which they helped bring to life and so feel betrayed, almost as though their favourite indie band just sold out by signing with a major record label. A natural feeling that I have sympathy with and one that is far more understandable than those who lack an understanding of how Kickstarter and capitalism work and are wondering where their share of the $2b is.
What it will ultimately boil down for me is simply: how good is it and what do I have to pay - not just in monetary value - to acquire one. People were terrified of the Kinect sitting in their living rooms watching them, I’m content that’s conspiracy theory madness and have one in my living room. Supposedly the CIA are listening in on my party chat on PSN, they’re quite welcome to hear our team’s striker turn the air blue. If the benefits of having and using it outweigh the tangible negatives, be they performance or personal, then no matter the device I will embrace it.
Last year I wanted an Oculus Rift because I felt immersed in the world. I was there with the sun glinting through the trees, looking out over a village by the sea and the sense of depth was incredible. Despite being at a public event, with the goggles snuggly fitted round my face and headphones blocking out the din from the rest of the world, I was in that world. That is what will make me buy this wondrous gadget and not whose branding is on it.
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