TIME Technologizer

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

Oculus DK2
Oculus Rift Crescent Bay The latest Oculus Rift prototype, Crescent Bay, marks one step further before the commercial release of the virtual reality handset. Crescent Bay features upgrades like 360-degree head tracking, a lighter weight, and high-quality audio. Lucky participants in the demos recalled the mind-boggling immersion in the scenes they were watching. The consumer version, Oculus Rift, is expected to launch as early as April 2015. 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

TIME Video Games

Oculus and Leap Motion Combine for Virtual Reality Shark Punching

You’ve probably seen some neat uses for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, like the Seinfeld apartment or 3D Zelda. But I’m not sure any of them can match putting up your dukes and punching some sharks in the face.

Chaotic Moon–the same company that recently whipped up that futuristic Pizza Hut table concept–has turned shark punching into (virtual) reality by slapping a Leap Motion controller onto an Oculus Rift prototype. The player then peers out into the ocean, spinning around and fending off sharks with bare knuckles.

To be honest, it looks a little rough. In the promo video, fists sort of float unnaturally in the middle of the screen, and as Engadget reports, you need to hold your hands higher than usual so the Leap controller can accurately detect them. But those quibbles fade away as the fist makes contact, producing an explosion that could rival the final scene of Jaws.

Sadly, SharkPunch is not going to be a commercial product. It may not be feasible anyway, given that Oculus requires a wired connection to a PC, which would surely cause problems as you spun around the room. (The official SharkPunch setup involves a ceiling-mounted Oculus.) We can only hope this little project inspires someone to create a proper, polished shark-punching experience by the time the consumer version of Oculus Rift comes around.

TIME Oculus Rift

Virtual Reality at Its Finest: Walk Around Jerry Seinfeld’s Apartment

Jerrys Place
Jerry's Place VR

If ever you were looking for a sign that virtual reality has hit the big time, this is it.

Developer Greg Miller has taken the time to cobble together a Seinfeld-themed “just-for-fun project” for the popular Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. The fruits of his efforts: Jerry’s Place, a three-dimensional rendering of Seinfeld’s TV apartment.

A few things you may notice in the below video: We finally get to see the front wall of Jerry’s apartment (the video’s tour guide explains that one of the episodes of the show actually revealed the wall briefly), and there’s a copy of TIME on Jerry’s coffee table. The bookshelf on the back wall is amazingly detailed, as well.

Jerry’s Place is available as a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux, though you’ll need the $300 Oculus Rift development kit to immerse yourself in the mind-bending experience of touring the apartment belonging to a character in a TV show that hasn’t been on the air for 16 years. If you’re willing to pay $300 for that, I’d like to go out drinking with you sometime. You sound fun!

Here’s the video — it contains some not-safe-for-work language, so either mute it, wear headphones or take your employment status into your own hands:

Jerry’s Place for Oculus Rift [Jerry’s Place VR via The Verge]

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