TIME Virtual Reality

Like It or Not, Virtual Reality Is Big Business Now

Oculus DK2
Oculus's Development Kit 2 virtual-reality headset Oculus VR

Because of Facebook and Oculus, top talent and huge investments are now table stakes.

Allow me to juxtapose a couple new developments following Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR. For much of Friday, the top post in Reddit’s technology section — and one of the top posts on the front page — has been a link to a new Oculus Rift competitor called the Totem.

Never mind that Totem’s creators, True Player Gear, have not yet shown a working prototype, let alone given a price or a release date, either for developers or consumers. The post linking to True Player Gear’s website had, at my last count, more than 3,000 upvotes and 1,600 comments.

Clearly, there’s a desire for some sort of Oculus reboot — a fresh start at building virtual reality through grassroots efforts. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if Totem’s creators had a Kickstarter campaign in place today.

But elsewhere on the web, something different was happening with virtual reality: Michael Abrash, an industry legend who, according to TechCrunch, was leading Valve’s own virtual reality efforts, is moving to Oculus. In a blog post, Abrash specifically cited the Facebook acquisition — and the vast resources Facebook can provide — as a key factor in his decision. “I now fully expect to spend the rest of my career pushing VR as far ahead as I can,” Abrash wrote.

No disrespect to True Player Gear, but at this point, anyone who thinks a small startup — let alone a crowdfunded one — can take on Oculus is deluding themselves. Thanks to Facebook, the minimum buy-in for virtual reality has grown immensely, just over the last few days.

As a reminder:

  • Oculus can now afford to create custom hardware, and doesn’t have to settle for off-the-rack phone and tablet components.
  • Facebook can afford to hire top talent and invest in tackling major engineering challenges.
  • Oculus can sell its eventual product for cheaper, attracting a larger base of users, in turn attracting more developers.

At the moment, there are lots of smaller projects trying to stake a claim in the virtual reality business. I predict that many will wither away, and those that don’t will either be snatched up by larger companies or live on as tiny niche projects. Without considerable resources, it’s going to be nearly impossible to compete on a large scale.

I see this as mostly welcome news. Oculus Rift in its current state is so far removed from what it could become. (Imagine, for instance, a fully wireless device light enough to slip on like a pair of glasses.) The sooner virtual reality gets taken seriously by consumer-facing companies with gobs of research and development money, the faster it can improve into a viable a consumer product.

Do I have concerns about Facebook leading the charge? Absolutely. And on some level, I’m sad that virtual reality is dashing past its geeky, grassroots phase at a faster clip now. But Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus increases the odds that virtual reality won’t stay in that phase forever, and that’s a good thing.

TIME Innovation

Raph Koster on Facebook-Oculus: You’re Just Another Avatar in Someone Else’s MMO

A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London.
A gamer uses an Oculus virtual reality headset at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London, September 26, 2013. Leon Neal—AFP/Getty Images

The Facebook-Oculus deal, for all the good it might do, requires that we all start paying much closer attention to ownership and control of virtual spaces.

Former Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies lead Raph Koster has the most insightful and incisive piece I’ve yet seen on the Facebook/Oculus VR deal. Instead of worrying about Mark Zuckerberg’s gaming cred or the integrity of Oculus’ Kickstarter or whether Google should have swooped in first or what $2 billion means relative to anyone else’s VR war chest, Koster zooms out to offer a perceptive overview of the underlying currents defining near and future computing trends, and the problematic artifacts that accompany those trends.

In Koster’s view, computing’s near-future is essentially “wearable” versus “annotated.” You’re either plugging stuff into your person to augment (or simulate) your reality, or carrying stuff around that places interpretive brackets around it. The difference between the two notions is academic, of course, and Koster says both camps — currently shaped by competing commercial visions that have as much to do with molding consumer interest as tapping it — can’t escape the black hole tug that’ll eventually draw them together.

About this, Koster says:

One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.

What does it mean when companies as vast as Facebook or Google or Apple have this level of access to and control over the way we interface with anything, conventional notions of reality or otherwise? It means…well, trouble, because it’s already causing trouble via the pre-VR, pre-“presence” social network-driven personal desire assimilation engines that live in our cars, houses, workspaces and pockets.

I’m not a libertarian privacy-at-all-costs wingnut committed to a wildly idealistic impossibility. I see the philosophical cracks in some of these very old, culturally bound presumptions about what privacy ought to be, as if humans were self-sustaining islands in some mythic state of equilibrium capable of inhabiting this planet without imposition of any sort on another (ultimate privacy is, in fact, another way of describing a form of sociopathy). Mark Zuckerberg isn’t wrong when he’s said that privacy as we know it (or ideally expect it) has to change, and that that’s symptomatic of a technology-fueled (which is to say fundamentally us-driven) paradigm shift.

But the most important question in this barrier-cracking worldview, where we inject all that we are into someone’s calculating server farm, is this: Who has ultimate ownership of that technology?

In an ideal world, virtual reality would probably be open source, broadly distributed, and all this looming virtual turf would be owned (or data-mined, or suffused with overt or subliminal ads) by no one. But suggest as much and you’re basically ringing a bell for arguments about the so-called risk-takers and venture capitalists and entrepreneurial geniuses necessary to make all that looming virtu-topia possible, because true or no, that narrative’s drawn from as old and deeply embedded a cultural playbook as exists.

That question’s at the crux of the issue Koster’s getting at when he says the Facebook/Oculus deal isn’t about rendering (that is, geeky cool visual stuff) so much as it is about “placeness.” It’s about ownership, specifically ownership of cloud-space.

Virtual reality in that sense is going to be as boundless as a processor farm’s prowess and a design team’s imagination. It’s perhaps most poignantly the vision Tad Williams shares in his Otherland series, but it’s also there in Neal Stephenson and William Gibson and Bruce Sterling and all the countless others, in particular post-1980s-VR artists and thinkers, who’ve grappled with the question in one form or another. It’s a vision of the future in which extremely powerful, functionally opaque institutions compete for our attention in unfathomably vast virtual emporiums that, yes, may well start with something as innocuous-sounding as mountain climbing and concert-going (say in Facebook’s case). But how quickly does that move on to wish fulfillment (which is where it risks becoming narcotic), where it’s simultaneously mining our hopes, dreams, desires and eventually every measurable detail of our lives?

“It’s about who owns the servers,” says Koster. “The servers that store your metrics. The servers that shout the ads. The servers that transmit your chat. The servers that geofence your every movement.”

And then:

It’s time to wake up to the fact that you’re just another avatar in someone else’s MMO. Worse. From where they stand, all-powerful Big Data analysts that they are, you look an awful lot like a bot.

Paranoia about what companies are doing with your data today may be overstated, in that I’m pretty sure no one cares what I say on the phone or send through email in the here-and-now. But healthy paranoia, if such a thing exists, involves educated hypothesizing (that is, extrapolating based on historical precedent). There’s certainly precedent for virtual reality, since the latter’s still going to be constrained by our imaginations. In this 21st century pre-singularity moment, we’re still as human as we’ve ever been. The problems we’ll have to deal with when we strap things on our faces and start to reify what we’re already capable of doing when we close our eyes and dream are going to be the same problems we’ve been dealing with for millennia, however amplified or fetishized or distorted.

Grappling with something as far flung (and yet simultaneously present) as global warming isn’t about solving those problems today, it’s about considering a tomorrow many of us won’t see. It’s about understanding the scale involved with addressing those problems, about thinking longterm instead of excusing inaction based on human ephemeralness. The kinds of things Koster worries about won’t happen overnight, but gradually — so gradually that the shifts can be imperceptible. The dystopian futures that seem so reprehensible in the best speculative fiction don’t arrive like fleets of hostile aliens, galvanizing us to action, and Koster’s future in which we’re an avatar in someone else’s MMO is already partly here. In a 2007 interview about his book Spook Country, William Gibson said “it’s hard to write science fiction anymore when reality is so unbelievable.”

I’m excited about Oculus VR’s tech. I can’t wait for my devkit to arrive this summer. But as Koster puts it, “I’m a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life.”

Me too.

TIME facebook

With Oculus, Facebook Can Reinvent Itself — and Its Reputation

An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual reality head-mounted display at the 2014 International CES, January 9, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. ROBYN BECK—AFP/Getty Images

If there's ever been an opportunity for Facebook to earn some trust back, this is it.

Facebook’s reputation for untrustworthiness came back to haunt the company this week, when it announced plans to acquire Oculus VR for $2 billion.

The reaction from Oculus fans was swift and dramatic. Devoted followers became seething critics. At least one developer has cut ties with the company, and there’s an air of unease among many others.

Basically, Oculus fans have little faith in Facebook not to ruin everything and turn virtual reality into a soulless, activity-tracking ad platform. While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact reasons for this general level of distrust, several potential reasons come to mind:

  • Facebook converts people’s “Likes” from across the web into advertisements on Facebook, so you’re constantly reminded of how your friends have become shills. It’s not as invasive as Facebook Beacon, the ad service that tracked users across the web and turned their activity into ads, but it’s almost as creepy.
  • A few years ago, the company made a big push toward sharing with everyone — not just your immediate circle of friends — as the default. Many new users unwittingly exposed their private information to the world as a result.
  • With the arrival of “Open Graph,” third-party apps were allowed to share the details of your activities automatically. This led to instances of oversharing, some of it inadvertent.
  • Core gamers are wary of Facebook for poisoning the gaming well, as it had enabled games such as Farmville to thrive on social pressure rather than solid mechanics.
  • Facebook’s site has gone through numerous, sometimes drastic redesigns, usually to emphasize some new feature that users didn’t ask for. The redesigns rarely go over well, even if users eventually embrace the new features.

These may be the kinds of things Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft, was getting at when he said Facebook’s motives are “too unclear and shifting.” If you view Facebook simply as a place to share photos, links and text with friends, it’s easy to eye the company’s many policy shifts and design changes with hostility.

Yet those feelings haven’t hindered Facebook’s growth. The social network now has more than 1.2 billion active users worldwide, and 1 billion users on mobile. A 2012 survey found that 59 percent of users have little to no faith in the company to keep their information private, and that only 13 percent said they trust Facebook completely — yet they continue to use the service. The reality is that Facebook is the biggest, most centralized way to stay in touch with far-flung friends and family members. Quitting Facebook is akin to withdrawing from a part of your community. Most people don’t do it.

With Oculus, Facebook will not enjoy the same gravitational pull. Virtual reality is young, and there’s lots of competition. And right now, virtual reality’s most vocal supporters are angry at Oculus and Facebook. Granted, they represent a fraction of what is still just a niche community, but they’re the ones who will evangelize virtual reality over the next few years.

That’s a problem for Facebook, but it’s also an opportunity.

After announcing the acquisition, Oculus inventor Palmer Luckey made a lot of promises about the company’s future. He promised that users won’t have to sign into Facebook to develop or play Oculus games, and said Oculus will not spy on users or splash ads in their faces. He pledged to invest more in indie development and stay in close contact with the community. And he said that Oculus development will remain open, so games won’t have to live inside a walled garden.

The response from former fans, on pretty much every Reddit post and comment section, was the same: We don’t believe you.

It’s simply impossible for Oculus’ critics to consider that Facebook would do anything but violate their privacy, their freedom and their trust. They won’t be swayed by any amount of words from Luckey or Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Maybe what they need is action.

Let’s just consider the possibility that all of Luckey’s promises come to fruition — that five years from now, the Oculus gaming product will still support open development, will not require Facebook logins and will still abstain from Facebook’s advertising practices. That might help restore people’s trust in Facebook, but it would only be a start.

The bigger opportunity — and the hardest decisions — will come later, when Facebook looks beyond gaming and into broader applications. Zuckerberg sees virtual reality as the next communications platform — the next step in feeling closer and more connected to people who are geographically far away. In that sense, Facebook’s bet on virtual reality is an attempt to reinvent itself.

So here’s Facebook’s big chance: As the company invents new ways to communicate, it can continue its culture of sharing by default and turning friends into walking banner ads. Or, it can come up with new ways to make money that no one’s thought of yet, and that are altogether less creepy and intrusive than the Facebook of today. Virtual reality is as clean a slate as Facebook’s going to get.

The hate that Oculus and Facebook are getting today isn’t all that significant. What really matters is whether we can look back in five or 10 years at the dawn of virtual reality and say that Facebook didn’t screw it up.

TIME facebook

When Crowdfunding Goes Corporate: Kickstarter Backers Vent Over Facebook’s Oculus Buy

When Carlos Schulte contributed $300 on Kickstarter to an ambitious project called the Oculus Rift, he never expected this day to come. It’s doubtful anyone did—Oculus VR, the company behind the virtual reality headset, was only asking for $250,000 in its crowdfunding campaign during the summer of 2012. Back then, it was a scrappy startup with a small but passionate base of supporters. Now, it’s a multi-billion-dollar company about to be owned by Facebook.

The surprising acquisition announcement Tuesday left many of Oculus’s original backers stunned, and a bit disappointed.

“I felt a little used, I guess,” says Schulte, a 46-year-old gaming enthusiast in California who has backed many projects on Kickstarter. “Maybe I was naive. I thought it was more just like someone doing it for a hobby and just wanted to do something fun for the community. I didn’t know it was going to turn into a $2 billion deal.”

Supporters of Oculus are voicing their frustration at the company’s decision to sell itself to a tech giant on blogs, Twitter, Vine and even Kickstarter itself. They’ve risen like a group of livid shareholders who disapprove of a firm buyout — but Kickstarter donors have no say in a company’s financial decisions. The passionate online response against the Facebook purchase illustrates how the do-it-yourself ethos of crowdfunding sites can clash with the corporate world.

The Oculus deal is a huge win for crowdfunding because it proves the model’s validity. Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey and his team had a lofty idea to bring true virtual reality gaming to the masses. They asked the Kickstarter community for help and were rewarded with $2.4 million in donations from more than 9,500 individuals. They parlayed that funding into a business that drew more than $90 million in venture capital funding in less than two years and a $2 billion valuation from the world’s largest social network.

What more could anyone want from a Kickstarter project? Gordon Burtch, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies crowdfunding trends, says the rise of Oculus may attract more tech entrepreneurs to Kickstarter. “[They] could see this success story as an ideal outcome for their own companies,” he says.

While a big buyout is viewed as a win for a venture capitalist or a tech CEO, the Oculus deal left a bitter aftertaste in the mouths of Kickstarter backers who are seeking things besides return on investment when they open their wallets. Avram Eisener, a 33-year-old web developer, gave just $10 to the project but said he felt a small sense of “betrayal.” He admired that Oculus had sprung from the mind of Luckey, a 21-year-old who tinkered with virtual reality gadgets in his parents’ garage, rather than a tech giant.

“It wasn’t from a big company. It was just someone who felt passionate about it,” Eisner says. “To me, that made it just all the better. It was like I want this person to do the best that they can with their idea.”

Luckey has taken to Reddit to defend the purchase, arguing that Oculus will have more resources, more autonomy and the ability to offer a cheaper product than it could independently. “We have even more freedom than we had under our investment partners because Facebook is making a long term play on the success of VR, not short-term returns,” he wrote.

Kickstarter backers don’t doubt that Facebook’s support will help bring virtual reality to a mainstream market faster than Oculus would’ve managed on their own. But some worry that the final version won’t look like the product they envisioned when they gave money to Luckey and his team. Oculus has been pitched as a gaming device, but Facebook has much grander ambitions for virtual reality as a communications platform that may one day serve users advertisements.

“You don’t go on Facebook to have a wonderful videogame experience,” says Joel Edelstein, a designer who has spent $650 on Oculus devices. “If Oculus Rift just becomes the next venue for sort of like Farmville, that’s going to be really bad.”

Kickstarter and Oculus VR declined to comment for this story. Facebook did not return an email seeking comment.

Backers will have to wait—likely for years—to fully determine Facebook’s impact on Oculus. But the deal may color the way they view crowdfunded projects.

“In the future, donors will be a lot more circumspect and skeptical about putting in money, especially in projects where they could have even an inkling of an idea that this might be bought out by a tech giant like Google, Facebook, or Apple,” says Anindya Ghose, a professor at New York University who studies the crowdfunding sector. “They do not believe in backing projects for financial, commercial reasons. For them it’s a lot about a cause or altruism.”

Eisner, who has backed 45 Kickstarter projects, said this might be the “nail in the coffin” for him funding projects by people he doesn’t know. But Edelstein and Schulte plan to continue backing Kickstarter ideas. “I like Kickstarter as a model,” Edelstein says. “Oculus Rift is still one of the best projects that’s been on there.”

Still, he and other backers will wonder how the virtual reality sector as a whole might have developed differently if its hottest startup hadn’t gone corporate.

“The worry that I and some other people have is really just that the Oculus Rift was originally just based on trying to make the best virtual reality experience possible,” Edelstein says. “I don’t know if that’s their core goal anymore.”

TIME Virtual Reality

7 Promises Oculus Made After Getting Bought by Facebook

Oculus Rift Facebook
A gamer wears a high-definition virtual reality headset, manufactured by Oculus VR Inc., at the Eurogamer Expo 2013 in London, Sept. 28, 2013. Matthew Lloyd—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you're wondering how the Reddit community is responding to the Facebook-Oculus news, "with skepticism" would be an understatement.

Maybe you’re upset at Oculus VR and co-founder Palmer Luckey for selling the company to Facebook for $2 billion, but give Luckey credit for at least one thing: He spent hours last night answering questions from distressed Oculus fans on Reddit, and went right back to it this morning.

Most of those comments are being downvoted into obscurity. But a glance through Luckey’s comment history reveals a lot of big promises about Oculus’ future under Facebook. Here are some of the most noteworthy quotes from Luckey’s Reddit Q&A:

“You will not need a Facebook account to use or develop for the Rift.”

This was in response to a user threatening to be “done” with the Rift if certain conditions were not met. Luckey made a similar comment last night, when asked to guarantee that users wouldn’t have to log into their Facebook accounts to use the VR headset. “That would be lame,” he said — and it would surely scare off the developers who are sticking around.

“We are not going to track you, flash ads at you, or do anything invasive.”

In terms of Oculus promising not to adopt any of Facebook’s creepier tendencies, this is probably as clear-cut as it gets. It’s understandable to worry that our virtual behavior could eventually be grist for Facebook’s ad mill, though this would likely cause an even bigger backlash if not handled with extreme caution. Many Redditors are choosing not to believe Luckey’s promises. Time will tell who is right.

“None of our gaming resources will be diverted.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made clear that the ultimate goal is to expand virtual reality beyond gaming, eventually creating “a new communication platform.” This has naturally led some Oculus fans to wonder whether the company’s commitment to gaming will be diminished. Luckey says that won’t be the case, because Oculus now has more resources for gaming than it did before. That includes more money to invest in indie developers. A bigger question is for how long Oculus will stay deeply invested in gaming. Again, there’s no way to know right now.

“We are not going to lock people out because they compete.”

Some gamers and developers are worried that Oculus will require all games to go through an official Facebook ecosystem. That’s not the plan, Luckey said. While Oculus is working on its own app store and launcher for VR games, developers won’t have to use it. “Facebook has no interest in changing that, they believe in what we have been doing all along,” Luckey said.

“Our relationship with the community is not going to change, and we are not going to spy on anyone.”

These are two separate concerns, in response to one Redditor. The first concern is that Oculus will stop being so close to its community and become less relaxed with interviews. The second is that Facebook is just using Oculus to reap user data and spy on users. Luckey, in response, gave his word that “nothing will change for the worse.” (See quote number two above.)

“This deal specifically lets us greatly lower the price of the Rift.”

We don’t know what the price of the finished product would have been, but the latest developer kit costs $350, so presumably the first consumer version will be much cheaper. The news was received warily by the Reddit community, which of course wondered about Facebook’s motives if it’s not looking to profit on hardware. The most likely answer is that Facebook is looking to build up Rift and refine its technology, so that it can eventually be used in mainstream, non-gaming applications. If virtual reality changes communications the same way Facebook did, the opportunities to make money will follow.

“Facebook is going to give us access to massive resources, but let us operate independently on our own vision.”

Luckey repeatedly insisted that Oculus will operate with autonomy, and said Facebook has a good track record for letting acquired companies do so. But the truth isn’t so clear-cut. Instagram, which Facebook bought in 2012, operates independently but began sharing user data with Facebook several months after the acquisition. Facebook’s purchase of WhatsApp is still pending regulatory approval, so it’s far too early to say how independent it will be. In reality, Oculus will be a major test of Facebook’s promised autonomy.

If you’re wondering how the Reddit community is responding to these statements, “with skepticism” would be an understatement. Many commenters seem to think that Oculus has ceded all decision-making to Mark Zuckerberg, and that Luckey’s promises can be overridden with the wave of a hand. That seems a bit extreme, especially since we haven’t seen the full terms of the deal, but the underlying concerns are valid. Luckey has given his word that things will only change for the better. We’ll see what that word is worth over the next few years as Oculus and Facebook build virtual reality together.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

TIME Virtual Reality

The Anti-Hype Guide to the Facebook-Oculus VR Deal

Oculus VR

Six quotes deconstructed and stripped of Facebook and Oculus VR's spin.

Whatever else you want to say about Facebook’s acquisition of virtual reality startup Oculus VR, give Mark Zuckerberg credit for having the nerve to pursue and pull the trigger on a $2 billion deal with a still-unproven (and historically lackluster) technology.

But then that’s the purview of companies with unfathomable cash hoards, and so on the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t give Zuckerberg credit. This is what companies like Facebook — whose start-out names belie their evolving all-consuming functions — wind up of necessity doing. Google is just a search engine company, after all — except when it’s mapping the planet, inviting us to become cyborgs and working to conquer death itself.

There’s a sense, sometimes, that whatever gets this much attention is the next zeitgeist, but it’s easy to confuse the latter with spectacle, and there’s a lot about virtual reality technology in 2014 still deeply mired in hype.

Analyst Michael Pachter may or may not be right about Sony’s VR contender, Project Morpheus, being “a really bad idea for Sony,” but I think he’s spot-on when he said this in a recent interview with DualShockers:

…I don’t think it’s [virtual reality] gonna be a big market. It sounds interesting, but I don’t think there will be enough content to justify making the capital investment … I think it’s chicken and egg. If there’s no content you’re not gonna buy a virtual reality headset, and if you don’t buy a virtual reality headset, there won’t be any content, because no one will make a dedicated game for a very small audience.

That’s the challenge — growing that “very small audience.” If Facebook can develop some sort of killer app for the platform, be it virtualizing how we interact with one another (or the inexorable rise of VR erotica), then maybe. But now you’re talking about overcoming cultural conventions and assumptions, and that takes time and generational turnover. Make no mistake: We’re talking about a paradigm shift much bigger and broader and upending than moving from pen and paper to typewriter, or from typewriter to mouse and keyboard. Taking that shift mainstream is Facebook’s challenge, and every company fooling with virtual reality technology today is still well off from meeting it.

Let’s walk through a few choice quotes circulating in the wake of the announcement last night, starting with Mark Zuckerberg’s acquisition manifesto.

“It’s incredible.” (Mark Zuckerberg, referring to Oculus’s virtual reality technology)

The notion of wrapping large and cumbersome objects around your head, possibly tethered via restrictive cables to computers, to simulate a relatively low-res and crude version of someone’s notion of an alter-verse is arguably not incredible. It’s a compromise, and I’d say still, in 2014, a pretty big one. Even with the advances Oculus VR’s made in recent years, it’s still radically unlike the wraparound promise of virtual reality in films like The Lawnmower Man and The Matrix.

Incredible would be a direct neural interface. Incredible would be understanding the brain well enough to make that sort of connection. Incredible would be effortless, fully immersive virtual reality (Zuckerberg is spinning big and bad when he describes Oculus Rift as “a completely immersive computer-generated environment”). Oculus VR is none of these things. And I say that as an investor in the technology: I just ordered the devkit 2. The difference between me and a guy like Zuckerberg is that I see Oculus VR for what it is: another stepping stone in a long line of stepping stones we’ve been slowly traversing for decades.

“Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible.” (Zuckerberg on the nature of virtual reality)

Nope. Oculus’s mission is, in fact, to enable you to experience the next stepping stone on the yellow brick road to bona fide immersive simulations well down the road. The “impossible” would be time travel, or maybe faster than light travel, or doing Harry Potter-style magic, or comprehending infinity. Oculus Rift is very much about grappling with the possible and long-expected.

“Our mission is to make the world more open and connected.” (Zuckerberg, describing Facebook)

Facebook’s mission is, and this is generally a legal matter, to maximize profits. That’s first and foremost. Along the way, the company might manage to make the world more open and connected because those interests dovetail, but the paradox is that doing so involves concentrating access to and control of all that openness and connectedness in the hands of a single corporate entity.

That’s been well and good for the sort of presence-detached interface that’s been Facebook’s stock in trade for years, but what would that sort of concentrated control of future virtual geographies (and our presence in them) entail? It’s the sort of question writers like Tad Williams ask in books like the Otherland sequence, and it’s not too soon to start asking it of Facebook and Oculus VR today.

“You selling out to Facebook is a disgrace. It damages not only your reputation, but the whole of crowdfunding. I cannot put into words how betrayed I feel by this.” (Oculus VR Kickstarter page commenter)

I sympathize with those who backed Oculus VR on Kickstarter, and who feel this Facebook deal violates some sort of unspoken bond between Oculus VR and its supporters, but I think it says more about Kickstarter supporters than Facebook or Oculus VR. There’s a deep misunderstanding of what both Kickstarter (as a vehicle to pool money) and crowd-funding (as a vehicle to get clever ideas off the ground) mean.

Kickstarter is a way to allow anyone so inclined to finance a project directly, a middlemen-eliminator coupled to a public stage on which startups audition for contributions. Each Kickstarter is a tacit agreement between supporters and idea-makers to eventually deliver some product or service, but unless otherwise specified, it’s not a promise to not take money from other sources of support, or to not be acquired by a company like Facebook along the way.

Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey says Facebook’s purchase changes nothing about Oculus VR’s Kickstarter deliverables, and there’s no reason for us not to take him at his word at this point. If Oculus VR starts rejiggering its commitments, then there’s reason to get worried or upset, but until then, it sounds like it’s still business as usual from the Kickstarter standpoint.

“…if Facebook can own the pipe, the platform or the operating system of the future, it will have much greater control over its destiny.” (Sterne Agee analysts, writing about the acquisition)

Analysts say the darndest things, most of it self-evident and/or devoid of insight. If Facebook can put its imprimatur on the Next Big Thing, of course it’ll have a firmer grip on its rudder. Who wouldn’t? The question is whether Oculus VR’s particular take on virtual reality is the Next Big Thing. No one’s satisfactorily answering that question right now, least of all “analysts” saying stuff like this.

“Facebook is making a long term bet on VR, not a short term run on profit.” (Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, answering questions on Reddit about the acquisition)

Oculus Rift is unproven technology that could still fall flat. There’s nothing etched in stone here, and the history of virtual reality is littered with brilliant-sounding-at-the-time shipwrecks. If Facebook wanted short term profits, it’d invest in something far less volatile. Short term profits are clearly not — and forget Facebook, because this applies to any company today — what investing in virtual reality interfaces circa 2014 means. Luckey is certifiably correct here.

TIME Technologizer

After WhatsApp and Oculus, Is There Anything Facebook Won’t Acquire?

Oculus DK2
Oculus's Development Kit 2 virtual-reality headset Oculus VR

The world's biggest social network is no longer satisfied with just being a social network.

I was sitting in a briefing this afternoon with a tech startup, tapping notes on my iPad, when an e-mail notification popped up at the top of my screen: “Oculus Joins Facebook.” I had to restrain myself from doing a double-take and wondering aloud: “Does that mean what I think it means?”

Sure does. Facebook is acquiring Oculus VR, the maker of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset, for $2 billion in stock and cash. It’s a huge deal — potentially a bigger one than last month’s Facebook shocker, its $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp, in every aspect except the money involved.

That’s because Oculus is building something that feels potentially as transformative as the graphical user interface, the mouse, the touchscreen, speech recognition or any of the other elements that have changed the way we interact with technology in the past. What it gives you — a 3D world you can explore by looking up, down and all around you — will be spectacular for games. But it’s not hard to imagine future versions of the technology being applied to other sorts of activities we perform using computing devices. Such as — just to pick an example at random — social networking.

I do confess feeling a twinge of sadness at the news: Technology breakthroughs are most exciting when they’re brought to us by scrappy startups, rather than large companies that happen to have enough money to acquire smaller ones. But I can’t begrudge Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg his new toy. When I tried Oculus Rift for the first time in its pre-release form last September, I was blown away as thoroughly as I’ve been blown away by any tech demo I’ve seen during my 23 years of writing about this stuff. If I’d had a spare $2 billion, I would have tried to buy the company, too. And if you haven’t tried Rift yet for yourself, the acquisition may make less sense to you than if you’ve strapped it on even briefly.

Zuckerberg’s timeline post about the deal on his own Facebook page explains why Oculus’s technology is interesting to Facebook in what seems like a pretty straightforward fashion:

Immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won’t be changing and we hope to accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there’s a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform. We’re going to focus on helping Oculus build out their product and develop partnerships to support more games. Oculus will continue operating independently within Facebook to achieve this.

But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

Before the WhatsApp and Oculus acquisitions, Facebook still felt like a vastly richer, more popular version of the thing Zuck built in his dorm room in 2004: a social network for helping you keep track of your friends and their activities. Now it’s clear its aspirations aren’t anywhere near so well defined.

WhatsApp is already a phenomenon unto itself, the most important of several services that threaten to render text messaging obsolete in its old-fashioned, supplied-by-a-wireless-carrier form. And if Oculus takes off, Facebook may take a lead role in defining the future of human-machine interaction.

Even Zuckerberg doesn’t have an infinite war chest, and Facebok isn’t the only company willing to pay huge money for potentially epoch-shifting startups. (Exhibit A: Google’s $3 billion buyout of smart thermostat maker Nest.) But the enormity of the company’s recent purchases — in ambition, not just cost — has rewired my brain. From now on, I’m not going to be stunned by Facebook acquisitions, no matter how big. What’ll surprise me is if there are no more visionary, pricey deals where these two came from.

TIME facebook

Facebook Buying Oculus Virtual-Reality Company for $2 Billion

US-IT-CONSUMER ELECTRONICS SHOW-CES
An attendee wears an Oculus Rift HD virtual-reality head-mounted display at the Intel booth at the 2014 International CES on Jan. 9, 2014, in Las Vegas Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images

Facebook is set to purchase Oculus VR, the virtual-reality-headset company best known for its Oculus Rift gaming device, in a $2 billion deal announced Tuesday that is expected to close in the second quarter of this year

Facebook will acquire virtual-reality technology company Oculus VR for $2 billion, the social-networking giant announced Tuesday. Oculus makes the Oculus Rift, a virtual-reality headset originally funded on Kickstarter.

The deal includes $400 million in cash and $1.6 billion in Facebook stock, as well as an additional $300 million if Oculus meets certain performance targets. Oculus will continue to operate independently at its headquarters in Irvine, Calif. The deal is expected to close in the second quarter of 2014.

Though the Rift has been pitched as a video-gaming device, Facebook plans to use its technology for communications, media and other forms of entertainment. In a conference call with analysts, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive officer, said virtual reality has the potential to be the next great computing evolution, following the transition from desktop computers to mobile devices.

“Oculus has the potential to be the most social platform ever,” he said. ‘“Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

In a post on his Facebook profile page, Zuckerberg presented such scenarios as sitting courtside at a sports event, studying with a group of students or consulting face-to-face with a doctor as potential uses for virtual reality.

The acquisition amount is a huge sum for a company that has yet to release a consumer-facing product. The Oculus Rift made its public debut at the 2012 Electronic Entertainment Expo, the video-game industry’s largest trade show. That summer the company launched a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign in which it eclipsed its $250,000 funding goal nearly 10 times over. Interest in the device has risen steadily since then, with the company raising more than $90 million in venture funding over the past two years. As many as 75,000 people have ordered developer kits in order to test the device and begin making software for it. And owners of the device can already use an Oculus Rift to play PC games, enter the world of Game of Thrones or even visit a supermarket. However, the company has not yet released a version of its headset for sale to the general public. Zuckerberg did not provide a timetable for when that might happen.

For now, the Oculus team’s focus will remain on gaming. Facebook chief financial officer David Ebersman told investors that the $2 billion valuation of the company was based on gaming opportunities alone, and it’s not a lonely field: Sony revealed its own virtual-reality headset last week and Microsoft has recently expressed interest in the technology.

The acquisition comes just weeks after Facebook announced it would purchase the messaging service WhatsApp for $19 billion. Zuckerberg noted that he didn’t expect Facebook’s buying spree to continue, but that the company would open its wallet for companies that it thinks offer a unique value opportunity. “There are not that many companies that are building core technologies that can be the next major computing platform,” he said of Oculus.

Facebook does not yet have a business model for Oculus, but revenues won’t center around selling Oculus Rift headsets. Zuckerberg said he could envision people visiting virtual worlds where they can buy goods and are served advertisements.

The huge purchase shows that every major tech player is making a big bet on wearable devices. Google is continuing to develop its Google Glass hardware and just announced a version of its Android operating system tailored for smart watches. Samsung already has a line of smart watches. With Oculus, Facebook is making a remarkably bold bet that people in the future will want to be fully immersed in technology.

“We feel like we should be looking ahead and thinking about what the next platforms are going to be,” Zuckerberg said. “We think vision is going to be the next really big platform.”

TIME Video Games

Sony’s Project Morpheus Virtual Reality Headset: 10 Things to Know

Sony

Let’s get the most important point out of the way: I am, as of this morning, officially an Oculus Rift v2.0 owner. Or I suppose you’d have to say pre-owner: though I’ve put money down, the revised version of Oculus VR’s $350 virtual reality headset won’t arrive until mid-summer.

My more intrepid colleague Jared Newman took the plunge yesterday afternoon, just after Oculus VR revealed it was putting version 2.0 of its Oculus Rift development kit up for pre-order (in tandem with demonstrations at the Game Developer’s Conference transpiring in San Francisco this week). We’re not developers, mind you, just virtual reality enthusiasts, and I think I speak for both of us when I say Oculus’ headset is in our top handful of tech-related things to experience this year.

But the image up top isn’t of Oculus’ headset, it’s of Sony’s — unveiled at GDC and codenamed Project Morpheus. Slick as it looks in that shot, Sony says it’s just a prototype without a release timeframe. But as Oculus Rift’s creator Palmer Luckey admits, if a company as powerful as Sony can pair compelling enough experiences with a headset like this, it could be just the shot in the arm the esoteric VR industry needs.

Let’s run through what we know about Project Morpheus, as well as what we’ve learned since Sony’s announcement Tuesday night.

It sounds impressive on paper.

According to Sony Japan honcho Shuhei Yoshida, the visor-style prototype includes a 5-inch LCD capable of delivering 1920 x 1080 pixels (1080p) to each eye (Sony calls it “1920×RGB×1080″). It has a 90 degree field of view; an accelerometer and gyroscopic sensors; USB and HDMI ports; and it works with the PlayStation Camera alongside Sony’s DualShock 4 or PlayStation Move controllers. The headset also features Sony’s new 3D audio tech, capable of generating omnidirectional sound that triggers based on your head’s orientation.

“Morpheus” is a Greek thing.

Morpheus is the god of dreams in Greek mythology (from the transliterated Greek word morphe, meaning “shape”). If you’ve read Ovid’s Metamorphoses, you know what I’m talking about, and if you’ve read Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, you also know what I’m talking about.

The headset has Sony waxing existential.

The phrase “virtual reality” is apparently passé, so Sony’s hyping another word to describe the sense of being somewhere else when wearing its headset: “Presence is like a window into another world that heightens the emotions gamers experience as they play,” writes the company, as if describing a Buddhist mindfulness seminar.

It needs the PlayStation Camera (and thus the PlayStation 4) to work at this point.

Sony says Project Morpheus is designed to work with its PlayStation Camera, released last fall in tandem with the PlayStation 4: “Inertial sensors built into the head mount unit and PlayStation Camera accurately track head orientation and movement so as the player’s head rotates, the image of the virtual world rotates naturally and intuitively in real-time.”

I’ve noticed a few claiming the headset works with Sony’s PlayStation Eye, the older camera designed exclusively for PlayStation 3, but I’ve seen nothing official from Sony on this (many still conflate the PS Eye with the PS Camera, when they’re totally different things). At this point, Sony’s confirmed support for the PS Camera only, and since that peripheral uses a proprietary interface (not USB) to link up with the PS4, that means Project Morpheus is probably going to be PS4-exclusive for the time being.

It may be motion control’s missing link.

For all the Wii’s success (and initial Kinect and PlayStation Move enthusiasm), motion control hasn’t progressed much in recent years, relegated to gaming gimmicks or supplemental mechanics in traditional games that feel forced. Project Morpheus could change this by giving you exactly the sort of interface you’d need, say swinging a virtual sword around without constraints (or a lightsaber, because hello inevitability).

It’s not wireless — yet.

At this point, Project Morpheus requires a USB or HDMI tether, but Sony’s said it hopes to make the device wireless before launch.

It’s almost as good as the Oculus Rift, but not quite.

That’s according to Engadget, anyway, who were fortunate enough to give both headsets a go at GDC. According to Ben Gilbert:

It’s not all virtual reality rainbows and dreams, of course. There are still some pretty major issues to overcome in Project Morpheus. Vision blur, for instance, is a much bigger problem on Morpheus than on Crystal Cove/Rift DK2. The screen resolution is also clearly not as high as DK2, making everything a bit muddier, visually speaking. Right now, well ahead of launch … Project Morpheus is both extremely promising and clearly not ready for prime time. But it’s close!

It won’t be out in 2014.

Sony’s confirmed Project Morpheus won’t ship this year, so short of giving it a spin at future trade shows or press events, we’re talking 2015 at the earliest to see if all the fuss pays off.

It won’t cost $1,000.

Because of course it won’t: Sony’s said as much, and after all, the new Oculus Rift devkits only run $350.

You still have to slap a giant clumsy-looking visor/helmet-thingy on your face.

VR headsets are stopgap technology on the road — okay, well down the road — to direct neural interfaces and full-on cerebral manipulation. They’re not new, they’re just getting better at the particular trick they’ve been performing for decades. They’re also arguably as limiting as they are liberating, forcing us to throw general ergonomics out the window in trade for a relatively crude (by movie standards) wraparound experience.

Dr. Richard Marks, inventor of Sony’s EyeToy motion control camera, once told me that any interface you had to wear, say a headset or full bodysuit, would have niche appeal because it involves sacrificing one sort of freedom for another. Virtual reality is getting better, but I don’t see it going mainstream until we’ve conquered the “You mean I have to wear this funky-looking thing on my head?” problem.

MORE: The History of Video Game Consoles – Full

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