Virtual reality has always existed only as a lofty technological goal in the interactive hardware industry, with most attempts at achieving it usually underwhelming when it comes to functionality. Nintendo’s failed Virtual Boy console from the mid-1990s comes to mind as one example, but the public has always hoped that some individual or group of technical wizards will come along and create something akin to a real-life Holodeck from Star Trek – something that can actually be counted as a substantive step forward in creating virtual reality. At E3 in 2012, inventor Palmer Luckey demonstrated the “Oculus Rift,” a head-mounted VR display (or HMD) that he stated would be more immersive and better for VR than any previous HMD released on the market, while also being inexpensive enough to court gamers.
Soon after the demonstration, a Kickstarter campaign was announced with a goal of raising $250,000 to develop the display further. Within 36 hours, the campaign had managed to raise over $1 million, and by the time it had ended, it had raised well over $2 million.
Over the last couple of years, the company has been fine-tuning its development kit for software developers, and most people that have actually sampled its efforts have been largely impressed. Some gamers have even converted old favorites into Oculus VR experiences with the dev kit both officially and unofficially, with an unofficial example being Nintendo’s Metroid Prime, and an official example being Valve’s Half-Life 2.
While the potential for a fully-functional and immersive VR headset has been burning up the internet for a while, most people were rather surprised to learn that social media giant Facebook just purchased the company for $2 billion USD, which has set people’s minds afire with speculation over what the company’s future intentions are with a functional and cost-effective virtual reality headset (I seriously doubt they want to give the VR treatment to Farmville).
The implications are certainly interesting, though. Many phones come equipped with a camera that has the capability to take panoramic, 360-degree pictures, sometimes even in 3D. If someone captures an awesome environment and posts that on Facebook in some new format, it might be exceedingly cool to be able to go into that picture and look around with the hardware capabilities of the Oculus Rift. They can certainly create 3D-oriented games with it, but at this point it’s hard to tell exactly what their intentions are.
Some people within the gaming industry are actually very disappointed with this development. Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft, publicly tweeted that he was considering developing the popular sandbox game for the Oculus format until news of the sale came through.
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
Apparently, some of the original Kickstarter donors to the Oculus project are now actually asking for refunds, or at the very least expressing extreme displeasure with the sale. A Kickstarter user named Adam Fraprie, for instance, posted on the Kickstarter page saying:
“I just wanted to express my deep disgust with the sale of Oculus to Facebook. There were so many great companies that could have acquired this product, why FACEBOOK?? I guess when someone is throwing an unimaginably large sum of money at you its hard to say no. I get the feeling that Oculus just committed suicide. I REALLY believed in Oculus and wanted to support them in every way I could. As a developer I was gitty with excitement, now I am kinda sad.”
Gawker writer Joel Johnson penned a very interesting editorial on ValleyWag entitled, “Oculus Grift: Kickstarter As Charity For Venture Capitalists.” It makes an interesting point in the opening statement:
“There is a standing presumption when one backs a Kickstarter project: you may lose your money. But there’s a new—or at least now proven—angle to consider, in light of Facebook’s acquisition of the virtual reality company Oculus: people may use your money to make a lot more money without ever properly starting a successful company in the first place.”
It remains to be seen what Facebook’s plans are for Oculus, and virtual reality in general, but it doesn’t take too much to imagine that the story surrounding fan and investor reaction isn’t over yet. The Oculus was designed as a gaming device, and it’s definitely curious that Facebook looks to be getting into that kind of business since the games on their network have been highly simplistic affairs, especially when compared to games like Half-Life 2. Whether or not Oculus will still be a gaming device or a new peripheral/console for gamers, or just a new and immersive way to send and ignore friend requests, remains to be seen.
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