Facebook is purchasing Oculus VR, maker of virtual reality gaming headset Oculus Rift, for $2 billion--just weeks after the social networking company acquired WhatsApp for $16 billion. The acquisition bolsters Facebook as a major player in the gaming sphere, and also gives the company access to a staff of massively talented engineers. While there might be lots of jokes about Facebook pokes in 3-D, this purchase is serious business: The acquisition of such cutting-edge hardware strengthens Facebook's image as an agile technology player, and brings with it a vibrant external developer ecosystem eager to develop for the Oculus platform.
In an official statement, CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that “Mobile is the platform of today, and now we're also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow. Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.” Oculus Rift CEO Brendan Iribe added “We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it's only just the beginning.”
Users interface with Oculus Rift's gaming system, which was recently featured in Fast Company, via a somewhat heavy visor. The visor displays to the user a fully immersive 3-D virtual world, responds to head movements, and works in tandem with either a PC controller or Android device to help users fully experience the game. Although the Oculus Rift isn't on the market yet, it has already become a cult favorite among gamers thanks to an ambitious Kickstarter campaign. Oculus consciously positioned themselves as a do-it-yourself, fan-based alternative to corporate gaming giants like Microsoft and Sony. It's an open question whether Oculus will be able to maintain their rebel image now that they've been obtained by one of Silicon Valley's biggest names.
There's already one casualty. Minecraft creator Markus Persson stated on Twitter that he has canceled talks to create an official version of his game for Oculus Rift, citing how Facebook “creeps him out.”
Oculus' team is primarily gamer-based, and includes some individuals of particular value to a social networking service. Iribe and many other early employees were deeply involved with UI developers Scaleform (later acquired by Autodesk) and the company's staff includes many engineers whose talents could prove useful for Facebook's continuing efforts to crack the mobile space. And, significantly, there is value for Facebook in Oculus's external developer community.
Oculus has an enthusiastic developer community of engineers working to push the Rift--a piece of technology that isn't even on the market yet--to its limits and to redefine what an entertainment experience can be. As Zuckerberg notes in his statement, "The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there's a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform." Vibrant external developer communities can't be purchased directly in cash or in stock options; they can only be bought by acquiring the technology ecosystems to which they are attracted. By acquiring Oculus, Facebook did just that. Developers working on Oculus through platforms like Unity are using it for everything from massively complicated adventure games to fully immersive journeys through Jerry Seinfeld's apartment.
The Oculus acquisition also helps Facebook outflank a little-known social competitor. While most gamers have not heard of Valve, the gaming company heads up the extremely popular Steam platform used by 65 million people worldwide to play games online. The company recently either released or announced their own haptic controller, operating system for televisions, and even their own gaming console. Meanwhile, gaming giant Sony is attempting their own virtual reality rival for Oculus Rift, a new gaming platform for PlayStation 4 called Project Morpheus.
In an expanded statement, Zuckerberg wrote:
Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences.
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.
In an interesting coda, it turns out a user on Reddit last month wrote about an alleged Zuckerberg sighting at Oculus's headquarters. Oculus will remain headquartered in Orange County, California, rather than moving closer to Facebook in Silicon Valley.
[Image: Flickr user Nan Palmero]