Oculus Rift – 10 reasons why all eyes are back on virtual reality | Technology | The Guardian 12/10/15, 8:34 AM
Oculus Rift – 10 reasons why all eyes are back
on virtual reality
Following Facebook's $2bn purchase of gaming firm Oculus VR, virtual worlds are becoming a reality again
Monday 31 March 2014 02.00 EDT
1 Oculus Rift is trying to reboot virtual reality
For many, virtual reality (VR) brings to mind images of people in the 1980s wearing headsets and gloves to interact with games and virtual worlds. There was plenty of hype, but the technology didn't catch on – a pattern matched in the mid-1990s with Nintendo's Virtual Boy VR device and then a decade later with headset-less virtual worlds such as Second Life. The US company Oculus VR is young – it was founded in 2012 – but its biggest achievement has been to get people excited about VR again. It raised $2.4m on crowdfunding site Kickstarter to make its Oculus Rift VR headset for gaming, distributing early versions to developers so they could start working with the device. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was certainly excited: he has just agreed to pay $2bn for the company.
2 This is about more than games for Facebook
"This is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences," wrote Zuckerberg as he announced the deal. "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home." Oculus VR is often seen as a games hardware company, but its founder, Palmer Luckey, has made it clear that he, too, sees a wider future for VR. "Right now you have very abstract social networks. So it will be really interesting to see what happens if virtual reality ever progresses to the point where you can have a very realistic way of interacting," he told Fast Company magazine in 2013. "The only difference is that you can be whoever you want to be, instead of whatever cards you got dealt in real life. It's the stuff of science fiction, but we are not too far away. People already spend hours a day on Facebook. What if it was truly engaging and immersive, rather than a filtered version of your real self?"
3 Some people are spitting fury at the deal
Not everyone is happy about Facebook buying Oculus, and many of those worry that Facebook doesn't care enough about the gaming potential of VR and may pull the team in different directions. The biggest headlines were caused by Markus "Notch" Persson, creator of Minecraft, who had been talking to Oculus about making a version of his hugely popular game for its device. Not any more. "Facebook is not a company of grassroots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company. Facebook has a history of caring about building user numbers and nothing but building user numbers," he wrote in a blog post explaining why he'd cancelled those talks. People have made games for Facebook platforms before, and while it worked great for a while, they were stuck in a very unfortunate position when Facebook eventually changed the platform to better fit the social experience they were trying to build."
4 Oculus isn't the only player in gaming VR
The week before the Facebook announcement, Sony unveiled its own VR headset for the PlayStation 4, Project Morpheus. It is only a prototype for now, working with the PS4's Move motion controller – the latter is the equivalent of the VR gloves from the 1980s. A startup called True Player Gear has been fielding intense interest in its equally prototype Totem VR gaming headset this month. And Microsoft? For now, its focus on new interactions with games revolves around its Kinect system of camera-based motion control, although it has one of the most-respected VR gurus, Jaron Lanier, working as a "partner architect" in its research division. The point is that even if Oculus's commitment to games falters in the years ahead, its early work making VR exciting for developers again should spur more innovation from elsewhere.
5 This is a big deal for Kickstarter
Oculus Rift's $2bn deal is also big news for Kickstarter: the biggest "exit" yet for a company initially funded by its crowd of backers, and a reminder of the site's potential as a springboard for innovative new ideas. Other examples include the Pebble smartwatch, Ouya games console and Neil Young's Pono music player. Oculus Rift didn't rely entirely on the crowd: it followed its Kickstarter $2.4m with $91m from traditional venture capital firms in 2013. This in itself has sparked debate since the Facebook deal was announced, because those VC firms received stakes in the company – and thus a big payday now – while all the Kickstarter backers got were their early devkits. "What backers are really upset about, but might not have the words for, is that this makes clear the problem with KS [Kickstarter]," University of Western Ontario academic Austin Walker said on Twitter after the news broke. "Which is that it's about consumption, not investment. Consumers aren't allowed to invest. There's no place for that. So this is a catalyst for (and reflects) a broader frustration about economic opportunities being blocked off to them."
6 The market for VR has yet to be proved
How mainstream is VR going to be? History suggests caution: early VR was ahead of its time and expensive; the Nintendo's Virtual Boy was a flop; and Second Life had a community of million or so users who were loyal before, during and after its hype, but it remained a niche idea. This is the challenge for Oculus: to prove that VR is more than just a niche product. Its new boss is convinced. "One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people," wrote Zuckerberg. The Oculus leadership team agreed. In a blog post, they said: "Over the next 10 years, virtual reality will become ubiquitous, affordable, and transformative." The theory is that with Facebook's resources, Oculus will be able to hire more talented engineers to improve its technology, bring it to market more quickly, and (crucially) make it more affordable.
7 You'll be able to enjoy those 'don't try this at home' experiences
A technology for social interaction that involves strapping on a headset that isolates us from the real world around us? Questions about whether VR is an antisocial technology have been posed since its earliest days, but are brought into sharper focus now. Oculus sees things differently. "Virtual reality is a medium that allows us to share experiences with others in ways that were never before possible," wrote Luckey in a blog post. And Jaron Lanier has made a convincing case for VR's role in personal development. "The most important thing about virtual reality isn't the idea that you're seeing this dramatic 3D thing. It's that you, yourself change," he said in 2011. "That you experience yourself in a different way than you ever have before. That you experience being a creature or being able to do things like fly, that you wouldn't otherwise."
8 VR has huge potential for healthcare applications
Indeed, VR has potential for people who are isolated in the real world, from general social anxiety to various phobias. Exposure therapy – whether to spiders, snakes, planes (or, indeed, snakes on planes) – could be one area to benefit. Luckey has mooted post-traumatic stress treatment as another, while YouTube demos show examples of VR software used to help nervous public speakers practise in front of a virtual crowd. The benefits aren't proved, but this is the point: as VR technology gets more powerful, accessible and affordable, it will spur a new wave of software and studies to understand just how effective it can be for these forms of treatment.
9 Facebook may have a porn problem to solve
As soon as any new technology emerges, one of the first questions is how the pornography industry will make use of it. Usually they're already at it, so to speak. Such is the case of Oculus Rift, from "erotic adventure" Wicked Paradise to the demos shown by adult-VR startups including Somavision and Veiveiv. Facebook is hardly a haven for erotica, so what Zuckerberg's team will make of the spinnable, zoomable nudes in Veiveiv's latest video demo, for example, remains to be seen. Thus far, Oculus Rift's open, hackable nature has made it easy for porn companies to experiment. Facebook isn't alone in the resulting ethical decisions: Google has tried to bar porn apps from its Glass augmented eyewear.
10 The wider trend of big hardware bets by internet giants
Facebook is still a software and services company, but it is making big bets on hardware too. Days after the Oculus Rift announcement, it revealed it was also buying British aerospace company Ascenta and, in Zuckerberg's words, "working on ways to beam internet to people from the sky" with a mixture of drones, satellites and lasers. This at a time when Google is working on its own Project Loon – a network of balloons floating on the edge of space beaming down internet access to remote areas – while also working on Google Glass, and buying a succession of robotics companies. Meanwhile, Amazon is working on a project called Prime Air, that would use flying drones to deliver packages. VR, drones, space balloons, augmented eyewear and robots – it's the stuff of science fiction, but also of the next big bets on connectivity from the internet's largest companies.
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