The news today that Facebook will buy Oculus—the makers of the best virtual reality experience in existence—caused paroxysms of upsetment and surprise. That's fair! But once the smoke clears, this could turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to the most promising technology we have.
If you've been tracking Oculus since its early days as a Kickstarter project, today's acquisition is frustrating. Facebook is your trying-too-hard uncle; Oculus is the homecoming queen. Of course seeing them together would give you the creeps.
It shouldn't. Oculus offered a beautiful dream, but you can only get so far on Kickstarter funds. Facebook offers the financial wherewithal to make the Oculus Rift a truly mass product, to realize its vision beyond just a gimmick-driven game engine. Even better, it looks like Mark Zuckerberg gets what makes Oculus so special.
Let It Rift
We've seen Oculus do lots of amazing things so far. It can take you up the Game of Thrones ice wall, or turn Unreal Engine 4 games into something that feels very, very real. Even the Navy leans on it for its next-generation war games.
Neat, right? Also limiting. Virtual reality has historically been applied to gaming, and that's how Oculus began as well. But VR's roots—especially the goofy headset version—are from an age that predates the bandwidth we have today, the drive towards connectivity, the densely layered social tissue that Facebook and Twitter and Skype and WhatsApp have spent the last decade cultivating. Despite lofty dreams of a VR internet, technical limitations have made VR games a closed circuit, a way for you and maybe one friend to pretend that you weren't in the room—or mall concourse—you were actually in. But it can be so much more. Facebook gets that.
In a call today to discuss the acquisition, Zuck said more than once that his company was preparing for "the platforms of tomorrow." And that's what Oculus provides: a platform. A place for games, sure, but also for chat, for education, for literally anything that involves human interaction. If it seems farfetched that a goofy headset could achieve that kind of ubiquity, remember that Android and iOS didn't exist 10 years ago; now they're all-encompassing.
That Facebook recognizes this not only speaks to its own ambitions—and its manic urge to hedge for the future—but also manages to broaden those of Oculus. Left to its own devices, the company could very well have turned Rift into the absolutely most immersive way to play Left for Dead. There's value in that! But by pushing past games and into hospitals, and classrooms, and kitchens, and battleships, Facebook will give Oculus every chance to realize its potential.
Think of it this way. Without Facebook, Oculus's best case scenario was to bootstrap its way to becoming a real product that gamers could embrace until Sony's Project Morpheus came along. Still great, but niche. With Facebook, Oculus will go on sale, soon. And when it does, it'll have ample resources focused on letting you do more than just mash buttons.
The Worst Case
Your worries aren't totally unfounded, of course. There are a whole lot of complications that come with Facebook owning Oculus. Starting with the biggest concern whenever a big company chews up a small one: Will it disappear and die?
It's a reasonable question. Google bought Sparrow, now Sparrow's dead. Yahoo! bought [LITERALLY ANYTHING YAHOO EVER BOUGHT], and now it's dead or dying. But Facebook, so far, seems to be doing right by its marquee acquisitions. Instagram's not just going strong, it's actually adding useful features. The Branch team is still working to make Facebook Conversations better, by all accounts. It's too early to say anything about WhatsApp, but Facebook has promised to let it act as an independent company as well.
Besides, it's not like Facebook can subsume a hardware company the way it did, say, FriendFeed. When it says Oculus will continue independently, and that its main goal is to allow it to succeed as a platform, there's every reason to believe that's true. Remember, Facebook is buying Instagram and WhatsApp and Oculus not because it wants all of those things to become Facebook. It's buying them on the off chance one of them becomes what replaces Facebook.
A more rational concern, though, is what the ultimate Oculus experience will be under Facebook. One prominent developer has already jumped ship on the news, and more could follow:
We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out.
— Markus Persson (@notch) March 25, 2014
That's probably a short-term concern; once developers realize that Oculus is the same old Oculus—assuming it is—it shouldn't have much difficulty attracting enough action to keep you entertained. Especially since it's currently, for all intents and purposes, the only game in town.
The bigger, longer-term issue might be how exactly Facebook plans to monetize Oculus. Zuck said earlier today that he's not interested in making a profit off of the hardware (which is good!) but that "there may be advertising" (which is bad!), not to mention various retail pushes. Why go to the mall when you can sift through the sales rack from the comfort of your Rift?
Which brings us to the last question about a Facebook-Rift pairing: What kind of future are we looking at? Virtual reality can bring us closer to people who are at a great distance, but it disconnects us from the world we're currently in. It's one thing when you're just playing a quick game; you've got the same blinders on whether it's an Xbox 360 or a Rift. But attending a lecture? A family reunion? Piloting a drone? It's miraculous that we'll be able to do those things from the comfort of our compugoggles. It's also a little bit terrifying.
But those are questions for society at large, not for Facebook and Oculus. Right now, today, the most amazing technology we've seen in years just found a champion that can make it a reality. That's something to applaud, not scowl at. That's how this is supposed to work.