Experienced Points

Experienced Points
Why the Oculus Rift is a Big Deal

Shamus Young | 8 Apr 2014 19:00
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Oculus DK2

If it's been a pipe dream for 20 years, what makes you think it's going to happen this time?

Some really smart people are saying the technology is finally where it needs to be. People like John Carmack and Michael Abrash. These guys are engineers, not marketing types, and are talking in plain terms about what works and what doesn't. Both of them left their extremely secure, desirable, and high-paying jobs (at id Software and Valve, respectively) to join the Oculus team. These guys would not make a move like that if they didn't have a lot of confidence in their ability to make VR happen for real this time.

But the biggest reason to believe that VR will happen is that we have working prototypes now. People are trying them in the labs and on the floor of the trade show, and they are walking away convinced.

What about this Facebook thing?

To be honest: I'm just as perplexed as everyone else. What is Facebook going to do with Oculus VR? What can they do? It's like a company that makes industrial farming pesticides buying a company that makes novelty cupcakes. Aside from the tenuous link of broad concepts like "computers" or "food", they're in a totally unrelated business with no chance to build any kind of synergy.

My guess: Zuckerberg is a huge fan of VR. He wanted to make it happen, and wanted to be in a position to profit from it when (if) it took off. This would mean the buyout is basically a pet project. I want to stress that I have NOTHING to back this up. I just find it to be the most plausible explanation.

In the short term this is really good for VR. One of the things impeding bringing the Oculus to market is the time and money it takes to build infrastructure. It's one thing to have Carmack soldering custom circuit boards together in the VR labs. It's another thing to set up a full-blown factory for mass production. The more capital you have up front, the bigger you can make the facilities and the faster you can make them. This can mean we'll get our VR headsets sooner and cheaper than if Oculus had to build up over time by using the first commercial units to finance the production of later ones. A couple of billion dollars goes a long way to easing all of those problems and making VR happen as soon as possible.

In the long term? I don't know. Facebook is seen as a leering, overbearing creep of a company. They're not so much evil as a pushy, prying gossip salesman with a wobbly moral compass. What happens if they try to use their headset to push their social network? (Assuming such a thing is even feasible.) The thing is, being the first to market with a new product is a mixed blessing. Sure, you get those juicy early-adopter sales. But you also get to pay for all the R&D. You get to make the mistakes that everyone else can learn from. Sure, Apple was the first to introduce the modern smartphone paradigm, but that didn't let them lock down the market. Other people copied the features that people liked and dumped the ones they didn't. We quickly had phones that were nearly as good as an iPhone, but for a fraction of the price. If VR takes off and Facebook tries to leverage it in a way consumers don't like, they'll just be giving a boost to the copycats that will follow a year or so down the line.

I'm not thrilled about the Facebook buyout, but I'm not really worried about it. I don't think they can really harm the technology in the long run, and they might get it into our hands faster and cheaper in the short run.

I'm excited.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, Spoiler Warning, and How I Learned.

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