Earlier today, Facebook announced that it was buying virtual reality startup Oculus for $2 billion, and as is the usual, the Internet erupted in panic. Despite actively disliking what Facebook has become and avoiding the service wherever possible, I actually think Facebook buying Oculus is probably a good thing for Oculus, the virtual reality community, VR enthusiasts, and even gamers.
If you take Mark Zuckerberg's post regarding the Oculus acquisition at face value, it seems clear that Facebook's impetus for buying Oculus is to accelerate Oculus's potential as a communications medium, taking it beyond games and turning it into a technology that becomes part of the fabric of our lives, just like computers, the Internet, and smartphones have been integrated in our lives.
Reading between the lines, I'm pretty sure Zuckerberg wants to build Neal Stephenson's Metaverse. I'm actually OK with that.
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. - Mark Zuckerberg
Oculus raised almost $100 million over the last two years. A tiny percentage of that cash came from Kickstarter backers who purchased early hardware and T-shirts, with the majority coming from venture capitalists. While Oculus was able to selectively take money from VCs who seemed to understand the potential of the VR market, $100 million isn't enough cash to make virtual reality as common as smartphones or tablets. Oculus needed more money. And whether that money came from additional rounds of VC funding or sales of the eventual consumer version of the Oculus, their success wasn't assured.
As a VC-funded company, Oculus was walking a tightrope. A major mistake, one botched product release, one VC who wanted a quicker return on his investment, or even one story about VR addiction on the Today show could erase everything Oculus had built. This is grim, but it's unavoidable that someone will die while using VR tech (whether it's Oculus' or someone else's) and that person's family is going to lawyer up and sue everyone involved. That's a tough thing for a company the size of Oculus to survive. With Facebook backing the company, they're better equipped to weather tough times.
Why is Facebook buying Oculus good for the virtual reality community? Facebook's investment is more than a vote of confidence in Oculus, it lends credence to the idea of virtual reality, which most sane people wrote off as a dead-end technology exclusively for bearded nutballs around the time Lawnmower Man 2 came out. I don't think Oculus needed a big investment to legitimize VR, once you get your first taste of Oculus-style VR, the technology takes care of itself. But Facebook's investment makes it more likely that more people will get that first taste sooner than they would without it.
Facebook is also in a fairly unique position as a company. There are just a handful of companies large enough to spend two BILLION dollars on a successful, but fledgling VR startup and then be smart enough to leave it alone so it can keep doing its thing. The other companies of this scale--Google, Apple, Amazon, and maybe Microsoft--either have worse records with acquisitions, aren't trusted by the game development community, or both. From where I sit, Facebook's first major acquisition, Instagram, seems essentially unchanged in the two years since Facebook bought it. I'm not an Instagram user, so I'm sure you'll tell me why I'm wrong in the comments.
I'm not OK with any one company owning the VR universe, whether it's Facebook or any other faceless multinational corporation. The threat of Facebook ruining VR with shitty advertising, incomprehensible privacy controls, and general skeevy behavior is real. I'm optimistic that Facebook looks at every user who has abandoned the current service as a failure that they must address in next-generation platforms, like VR. I'm sure Facebook will continue to fail as long as the company lasts, but there will be many smart people spending their time between now and the inevitable launch of Facebook's Metaverse figuring out how to make money without scaring off the users.
The TLDR is Zuckerberg says Facebook isn't changing Oculus's current strategy, other than maybe accelerating the execution. First, Oculus will focus on gaming, while Facebook is excited about virtual reality's potential as platform for general communication. Facebook provides stability to Oculus, allows them to weather the challenges they'll face if VR goes mainstream. These all seem like good things to me. And if you don't like the idea of Facebook owning virtual reality, there's time to start building something better.
Addendum: As I posted this article, John Carmack posted something to Twitter that I hadn't even considered.