Facebook, Oculus Rift and the virtual reality arms race

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Oculus was already a well-funded company, but with the arrival of Facebook’s finances it can afford to dream even bigger.

Suddenly, Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus makes Sony’s entry into the virtual reality race seem quaint by comparison. Last week, we heralded the first sighting of Sony’s Project Morpheus headset as the mainstream validation VR needed for it to truly thrive – a popular platform, the backing of a large corporation, a ready-made audience. Facebook’s buyout means that Oculus now has all of these things in its corner, and on a much, much larger scale. The social media giant’s financial muscle has the ability to turns Oculus’ dreamers into doers overnight, setting in motion plans for the medium that were once a faraway aspiration for Palmer Luckey’s team.

Last week at GDC, we spoke to a handful of key game developers about VR’s potential in relation to Morpheus and Oculus, conversations which have taken on new relevance after the Facebook deal.

Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney is a big believer in the tech. “When I look at this market I see this as version one – this is the first iPhone,” he told us. “Which is cool, but it’s not the endgame. I think you’ll see a continual stage of companies leapfrogging each other and if you extrapolate out to the endgame it’s going to be astonishing.”

David Reid of Eve Valkyrie developer CCP also spoke in glowing terms of what the emergence of Morpheus means for the medium – an effect that’ll surely be multiplied with the arrival of Facebook. “It’s an entirely different thing altogether when a company like Sony enters, and it does suggest this VR thing is going to be a big deal,” he told us. “All developers and all publishers should really seriously look at it and not just sort of say ‘well, this doesn’t fit into our core strategy and portfolio right now’. It really feels like this is where a big piece of the industry is going to go and there’s nothing to validate that better than the entrant of a strong incumbent who has been in games for a long time like Sony.”

Sony’s Morpheus prototype is able to track your head and two Move controllers beautifully, but that’s just the start.

What Morpheus brought to VR that Oculus hasn’t is some impressive Move tracking, halfway solving the disconnect between the player’s physical movements and their avatar’s actions in game. With its Facebook dollars in tow, Oculus can also now set about solving that problem.

“What makes Valkyrie work so well is that the experience you have of being in the cockpit of a fighter plane is very similar to the feeling of sitting in your chair,” said CCP’s Reid. “You’re not experiencing the cognitive dissonance of some of the early VR demos I’ve been able to see, where it is a first person experience and you’re actually walking in the game. It just feels a little off right now. I am confident that the technology is going to get there, but it isn’t quite there yet.”

Epic’s Tim Sweeney agrees. “The thing that still sucks – the limiting factor when you’re playing games – is that you’re sitting in front of a monitor and you’re using a mouse and keyboard or a gamepad and your inputs and outputs are really limited. There are orders of magnitude of improvement to be had there.”

Ironically it’s Microsoft which seems to have a ready-made solution to this problem: technology similar to the new Kinect could one day replicate your every movement in virtual reality. Former Microsoft executive, dreamer and 22Cans founder Peter Molyneux described something similar in conversation with us at GDC last week, as he lamented the lack of VR inputs besides a gamepad. He wants complete body tracking. “The only problem with VR for me is that I want total immersion,” he said. And trust Molyneux to also offer an entirely new idea, a virtual reality alternative which sounds even more like science fiction than Morpheus or Oculus. “There’s a piece of tech which I’ve seen and experienced which fires a laser on the back of your retina and creates an image which is ‘in the world’ in a way that makes it feel way beyond 3D,” he told us. “I’m under several billion NDAs so I can’t say anything more, but it’s awesome.”

Oculus Rift’s latest tech adds head tracking, but it’ll be with the advent of Kinect-style full body tracking that the sense of immersion will become even more powerful.

Outside of games, in VR’s potential uses for work and leisure, there are wider implications for game developers here. As hinted at by Zuckerberg himself in the Facebook post (what else) he used to announce the news, virtual reality could play its part in the rise of a new virtual economy, and game designers with plentiful experience in creating virtual assets will be the ones creating these virtual people, places and things. “It’s part of a trend to move more and more of the economy away from physically manufactured, energy consuming stuff to just virtual stuff – there’s an unlimited supply of that,” Epic’s Tim Sweeney told us last week. “It’s much more economical to see things that way than to get on a jet to travel to some far-off place to see something.”

Facebook’s investment can mean many things for Oculus. Its technology can now improve at an even faster rate and it will surely quicken the arrival of the headset on shelves and in homes. It might even buy a studio or two, or give John Carmack a chunk of that $2 billion to go and make the virtual reality game that’ll define the platform. The stage is set for Facebook and Oculus Rift to transform the nature of virtual interaction as we know it.

And of course it could all end in disaster. The backlash came quickly on social media, Notch leading the charge by cancelling development of an official Minecraft release on the Rift, saying: “Facebook creeps me out”. Indies that had invested time and money in developing Rift games suddenly reconsidered their efforts, their support soured by Oculus’ new owner and all that it represents. Facebook is considered by some as the The Bad Guy: a corporate monster appropriating and stifling VR’s potential to help its nefarious surveillance and money-making schemes. It’s an extreme view; all we know right now is that Zuckerberg saw the tech and acknowledged its undoubted potential by buying the company for $2 billion.

Virtual reality’s biggest investor, Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg.

Whatever you think of VR’s newest big-money backer, as a new medium – or rather, a much-improved revival of an old one – its potential is undeniable. Portentiously, last week Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney described to us a virtual reality arms race, with several well-backed companies duking it out to make VR cheaper, more accessible and less intrusive. With its acquisition of Oculus, Facebook has joined that arms race – and suddenly, it’s in the lead.

“It’s the trajectory of this that’s really exciting,” said Sweeney. “Each major generational improvement will expand the audience until it goes to hundreds of millions of gamers and potentially billions of consumers when you have something that’s so lightweight that it doesn’t interfere with your normal life.

“Just imagine when it’s reduced from this big headset to just a pair of sunglasses you can turn on or off or introduce computer graphics over your view. It will change the world.”