Oculus Rift, Kickstarter, And The Delicate Line Between Growing Fast And Selling Out

The virtual reality headset was a crown jewel of the Kickstarter world. But in the wake of its $2 billion Facebook purchase, a once vibrant community of supporters has transformed into an angry mob.

Once upon a time not so long ago, the Oculus Rift was a darling of the Kickstarter community, quickly accumulating close to 10,000 backers to blow past its modest $250,000 fundraising goal. Right now, the crowdfunded project for a virtual reality headset sits on a pile of just over $2.4 million--a testament to the power of a simple but good idea, and a vibrant community with deep pocketbooks.

Then, late Tuesday night, Facebook announced that it was purchasing Oculus VR, the Irvine-based company behind the immersive gaming technology, for $2 billion. The Rift's original backers are not happy.

"What a disappointing decision to cash out even before getting first consumer version out," wrote one aggrieved backer on the Oculus Rift's Kickstarter page. He was, of course, one of many. "A week ago Oculus was a very successful company about a year away from releasing its first consumer VR hardware," echoed another comment. "Now Oculus's mission almost has to be to feed more user data into Facebook. It's hard to imagine a product being released that is not hard-linked to a Facebook account. Now instead of just being a VR pioneer, Oculus users can become the first guinea pigs to share everything they do in their virtual worlds with the Facebook database."

As you might reasonably expect, not all the responses were quite so thoughtful or measured. But Facebook's latest splashy purchase highlights an interesting and new friction presented by the crowdfunding model. On one hand, it legitimizes the Kickstarter platform as a deep well for potentially world-changing ideas; after all, it isn't every day that the CEO of a multi-billion dollar tech company comes knocking on your door with his checkbook open. (Okay, maybe every other week.)

"This is just the start," wrote Mark Zuckerberg in a status update announcing the purchase. "After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside 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," he added.

A spoof of what Oculus Rift for Facebook might look like

Certainly, Facebook's technological resources will allow Oculus to grow and expand at an exponential rate to achieve the dream. But the main concern of critics is that the Rift will become a closed platform, inhibited by what many already view as Facebook's increasingly restrictive ecosystem. "I'm also dreadfully scared Facebook is going to try to tie this hardware device (pure and open) to Facebook specific use-cases (Facebook walled garden) or restrict access through a Facebook account," said one Reddit user. "Even if this is merely ownership and Facebook isn't interfering with how the Rift works or forcing the device to be tied to Facebook services today, there's absolutely nothing stopping them from doing so in a year, five years, or ten years from now. They can change their mind whenever they want."

It's a legitimate concern. Take Instagram, for example. Even though Facebook said that it would continue to run the photo-sharing service separately from its own day-to-day operations, Instagram is now reportedly testing integration with Facebook Places as a potential replacement for Foursquare, a one-time Facebook competitor. Indeed, one anonymous source tells the New York Times that Facebook eventually plans to redesign the Rift entirely, complete with a new interface and logo.

To be clear, the Oculus Rift won't be the last crowdfunded success story to be bought out with a billion-dollar offer from a major player in the consumer tech sphere. The Apples, Googles, and Facebooks of the world will not be shy about expressing their interest in community-funded projects in the future. The question is how, say, a Kickstarter startup can maintain a delicate balance between taking advantage of an opportunity to grow quickly while staying loyal to the original community behind it. It also raises an interesting question of whether or not Kickstarter's backers should have financial stake in the future success of a company they sponsor. Are they entitled to anything beyond a tangible product, if that?

While the Rift backlash so far has been swift and less than kind--a post called "How to CANCEL your Oculus Rift Pre-Order" is currently on the front page of Reddit--not all of the technology's supporters have completely abandoned ship. "It's going to take significant resources to make VR truly mainstream," wrote one Rift backer on the original Kickstarter page. "Facebook is smart they saw the future, just like the rest of us here and bought it for 2 billion. They got a bargain."

[Image: Flickr user Paulo Ordoveza]

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