The story of Oculus VR is the kind of garage-to-greatness story that geeks usually love. A passionate, self-taught tinkerer barely out of his teens revives a dead technology and two years later, Facebook buys his company for US$2bn. So, why are many of the company’s earliest backers so angry?
Oculus VR makes virtual reality headsets, aimed primarily at hardcore gamers. Or more strictly, Oculus VR will make these headsets. At the moment the company only produces “developer kit” versions of its devices, intended to allow game developers to create the virtual realities that these headsets will display.
By the turn of the century, virtual reality (VR) technology had essentially been abandoned. Several costly and embarrassing failures had made hardware companies wary of the whole field. But gamers around the world still longed for the kind of immersive experience promised to them by movies like The Matrix.
So, when a 21-year-old electronics savant teamed up with one of the inventors of 3D gaming to finally make VR happen, gamers were understandably excited. Palmer Luckey had the audacious idea and the knack for design, and John Carmack (creator of Quake, the world’s first truly 3D game) had the software know-how.
Instead of convincing the skittish hardware companies to give VR another try, they decided to use Kickstarter, a crowd-funding service, to raise the seed capital needed to develop their idea. They hoped to raise $250 000 in 30 days — they did it in two hours. By the end of the campaign, they had raised nearly 10 times their initial target.
But many of these same ardent supporters are now enraged by what they see as the company selling out to the enemy. Forums and blogs are filled with dismayed predictions of Facebook ads popping up in the middle of games and rampant invasion of privacy.
To these purists, Oculus VR has betrayed both its original purpose and the purpose of Kickstarter projects in general. Some of them are even demanding a share of the Facebook money, reasoning that they count as “early investors”. Many just want their pledge money refunded.
While this ire is predictable and even understandable, it’s also quite naive. Independence is wonderful in theory but difficult in practice. It’s been nearly two years since the original Kickstarter project and there’s still no official launch date for the consumer version. And that’s despite raising another $90m from top venture capital firms like Andreessen Horowitz.
The problem is that hardware businesses do not scale as easily as software businesses. There is no cloud for hardware. You have to deal with inconvenient things like supply chains and component manufacturers. There’s a reason that companies such as Apple and Samsung spend billions on research and development — hardware costs serious money to get right.
I’ll agree that Facebook might not be the ideal fit for Oculus. The complete absence of hardware in the company’s DNA and its reliance on data mining will scare some partners away. Already Markus Persson, creator of the popular game Minecraft, has pulled out of a deal saying that Facebook “creeps me out”.
But Oculus could have done a lot worse. This huge injection of capital will allow it to bring VR to the world a lot faster and more affordably than before. It will give Oculus access to Facebook’s enormous marketing clout to get the headset in front of many more gamers than would otherwise have been possible. And the deal gives Oculus the scope to explore possibilities beyond gaming — everything from virtual tourism to virtual concert attendance.
In one sense, the Kickstarter project did exactly do what it was supposed to do: it got Oculus noticed by the venture capitalists, which in turn got it noticed by Facebook. As a result, millions of gamers will finally be able to experience virtual reality in their own homes, and a whole new industry might spring out of the technology. If Oculus has to trample a few unrealistic standards along the way, so be it. — (c) 2014 Mail & Guardian
- Alistair Fairweather is chief technology officer at the Mail & Guardian
- Visit the Mail & Guardian Online, the smart news source