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Virtual Reality back in the day…

I remember, when I was about 12 years old in 1997 walking into the arcade on Portsmouth Pier. Right near the entrance were 2 massive machines. The aim of these machines was for you and a friend to step into each one, put a gigantic headset over your face, pick up a gun and fight cooperatively against some very crudely rendered robots in Virtual Reality. In my case, it was me and my Uncle that had a go and if I recall correctly, he scored the most points! I was too busy looking around and taking in this false reality around me.

It was simple, it was slow, it was certainly a technology in its early stages but in all honesty, it was one of the most immersive and fun gaming experiences I’ve ever had. When I stepped down out of that machine I knew with absolute certainty that VR was the future, it was coming and it was coming SOON. 17 years later and finally it arrived.

There are many reasons why VR was delayed for so long. The technology required was either too basic or far too expensive for personal use. Now, don’t get me wrong, VR solutions for the home have existed for a long time now, but only if you have several thousand Pounds to spend on this. Admittedly, the market was small, far too small to make it anything more than a novelty gimmick.

What is the Oculus Rift?

By now, you’ll surely have heard of the Oculus Rift (or maybe not), it’s an affordable personal VR headset that JUST WORKS. The brainchild of 21-year old American Palmer Luckey, a fanatical VR enthusiast and inventor. Like all great inventions, the Rift began its life in a garage somewhere and was made from cardboard and mobile phone components. Luckily, it was all uphill from there!

In 2012, the newly formed Oculus company launched a Kickstarter for development of a first developer-friendly Rift kit. This was never aimed at the mass-market, it was aimed at VR enthusiasts and developers, I’m happy to say that I was definitely the former and dabbled in the latter. I was one of the 9,552 early backers for the Developer Kit 1 (DK1) version of the Rift and took part in their Kickstarter which achieved just under 1000% of their original goal.

Fast forward to 2014. I’ve had my Rift for about 8 months and I love it, whilst there are currently only a smattering of full titles available for use, there are thousands of smaller (but no less incredible) experiences for the Rift. Every day the number of VR-compatible titles is expanding and this will only get faster and faster.

Oculus are already accepting pre-orders for the DK2 version of the rift, offering a higher resolution screen (one of the major flaws with DK1), proper positional tracking (the ability to lean your body in the real world and replicate that movement in the VR world0 and a low-persistence display (in an effort to prevent the motion sickness that I must admit, I’ve experienced ocassionally with DK1). The next step after this is the release of the Consumer-Version of the Rift, this will be the VR headset that you can buy in the shops, it will be aimed at EVERYONE, not just developers.

Then, Facebook steps in…

But then, 2 weeks ago, something totally unexpected and (at least initially) shocking occurred. Oculus announced that they’d been bought out by another company. That other company was everybody’s favourite, or most hated (depending on how you feel that day) Social Media Megacorporation…. Facebook, for the sum of $2 Billion.

Like everyone else for at least the first 48 hours, I was annoyed. I felt cheated. Why sell your soul to the devil? I had such a strong belief in Palmer Luckey and his all-star team (including gaming pioneers John Carmack and Michael Abrash) and I knew they would be the first to make VR real, not just a novelty. Now, they’re just a small part of a company that in my eyes, is renowned for forcing corporate advertisements down my neck and bombarding me with notifications for tacky, cheap, money-grabbing browser games that make me feel genuinely nauseous. I felt like my dream for VR was utterly shattered.

I’ve had 2 weeks to stew on this now and I must admit, I don’t feel the same as I did on the day of the announcement. Palmer and his team have gone into overdrive to reassure us all that nothing will change, their goals are the same, but now they can reach them much faster. They have real money that can be used to purchase unique, custom hardware for their device and not just buy the leftovers from the latest mobile phone production lines.

So, where does the Oculus Rift go from here?

I can see 3 possibilities, which I’ll list below :-

The worst case scenario

  • So you’ve bought your new Facebook Rift headset (ok, ok, they said they’re going to keep the Oculus brand, we shall see). There’s a fantastic new experience you’ve heard about and you want to try out, but you can’t. It turns out this experience isn’t approved by Facebook, the developer hasn’t paid their license to Facebook to develop for the Rift and because you have to log into your Facebook account when you put the headset on, you can only get their approved VR experiences.
  • Finally, you find a Facebook-approved experience you want to try out. You’re in the world, you love it, you feel like you’re on the sands of Mars! But then, your screen is overtaken by a massive advert for FarmVille-VR. You try to flap your hands to move the Ad from your screen, you turn around to look the other way but the Ad follows you. You wait the designated 10 seconds and finally the Ad disappears. Well, that was intrusive!
  • Every time you put on your headset, you’re taken to the Facebook Starting Page, full of floating Facebook entries from your friends, Ooh, Mike had chicken for dinner! Claire took a photo of her dog! Now, how do you get past all of this junk to find the experience you actually want?! Aaah, there it is… and just before you select it, a notification pops up on your screen “You have 1 event invitation!”… You rip off your headset. This is not fun.

The best case scenario

  • Nothing changes. Anyone regardless of their skill level can have a go at creating experiences for Virtual Reality. You, as the consumer can play any and all of them. The world is your oyster. Want to play Basketball on the moon, made in the Unity engine? Go ahead! Want to visit an incredibly realistic recreation of Hawaii and lay down on the beach in the glistening sun, built on Unreal Engine 4? Sure! Developers can charge for their creations, you can choose to pay. It’s a free market and there are no restrictions.
  • With their massive influx of cash resulting from their buyout from Facebook, the Rift is brought to the market faster than even Oculus could have imagined. The hardware inside the headset is all entirely custom made-for-the-Rift hardware. The best possible screen for Immersive VR, inbuilt positional tracking technology so your experience can match your movements in the real world like-for-like, Wireless receivers so you’re not actually tethered to the real world. Be freeee!
  • Thanks to the globe-spanning reputation of Facebook, everybody knows about the Rift. Every news agency is reporting on it, sooner or later every home has at least one Oculus Rift. VR is here, VR is now and it will never go away. The future is here!

Conclusion – The most likely scenario

A mixture of all of the above. In my opinion, Facebooks acquisition of Oculus, a company that doesn’t really seem to have any connection to their social network at all (at least, on the surface) is a fallback plan for them. Zuckerberg is undeniably a clever man. He knows that Facebook as it exists right now will not last forever, it will cease to be profitable in its current form and without another way to remain profitable, the company will sink. Zuck knows that VR will take off and will take off big time, he knows that if he owns the one big hope for the future of Virtual Reality then even if everything else fails, they still have the Rift. And WhatsApp. And Instagram….

I can’t see how Facebook could force a closed ecosystem on Rift-enabled experiences. It would be a death sentence. They know this needs to remain open and for everybody. Surely they know not to force their controversial social network on this device. Surely.

See, I’d guarantee there will soon be a Facebook Interface for Virtual Reality, it will be tailored for the Rift and I’m sure it’ll be at least vaguely interesting. But they must not make it a requirement. I don’t want to login to Facebook, play a VR game and then be forced to ‘share this’ on my Wall. No. Make it an option that I can opt-out of without ruining everything else.

There’s no doubt about it, Oculus have the right money now to employ the greatest minds in the business, they’ve already started! They have the cash to mass-produce the Consumer Version of the Rift on a worldwide scale. They don’t have to go the cheap route any more, they can do it properly!

I still believe in Oculus, and from what they’ve said, Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook share their vision for the future. So, with that logic, if I trust them, I should trust Facebook. So, for now, I will. But please don’t ruin this wonderful thing just to maximise your profits. Please.

If you have any of your own experiences or thoughts that you would like to share please let me know.

Image credit – Sergey Galyonkin


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