My Take On Zuckey & Luckey: VR Goggles Are (Only) For Gamers
I am watching the whole “Facebook buys Oculus Rift” situation with great bemusement.
I worked for a cyberspace company — Electric Communities — in the mid-nineties, back in the first heady pre-dot-com nineties wave of Silicon Valley VC fun.
We were building a fully distributed cryptographically based virtual world called Microcosm. In Java 1.0. On the client. In 1995. We had drunk ALL THE KOOL-AID.
(Click that for source. For a scurrilous and inaccurate — but evocative — take on it all, read this.)
We actually got some significant parts of this working — you could host rooms and/or avatars and/or objects, and you could go from space to space using fully peer-to-peer communication. Because, you see, we envisioned that the only way to make a full cyberspace work was for it to NOT be centralized AT ALL. Instead, everyone would host their own little bits of it and they would all join together into an initially-2D-but-ultimately-3D place, with individual certificates on everything so everyone could take responsibility for their own stuff. Take that, Facebook!!!
(I still remember someone raving at the office during that job, about this new search engine called Google… the concept of “web scale” did not exist yet.)
The whole thing collapsed completely when it became clear that it was too slow, too resource-intensive, and not nearly monetizable enough. I met a few lifelong friends at that job though, quite a few who have gone on to great success elsewhere (Dalvik architect, Google ES6 spec team member, Facebook security guru…).
I also worked at Autodesk circa 1991, in the very very first era of VR goggles, back when they looked like this:
Look familiar? This was from 1989. Twenty-five frickin’ years ago.
So I have a pretty large immunity to VR Kool-Aid. I actually think that Facebook is likely to just about get their money back on this deal, but they won’t really change the world. More specifically, VR goggles in general will not really change the world.
VR goggles are a fundamentally bad way to foster interpersonal interaction, because they obscure your entire face, and make it impossible to see your expression. In other words, they block facial capture. This means that they are the exact worst thing possible for Facebook, since they make you faceless to an observer.
This then means that they are best for relatively solitary experiences that transport you away from where you are. This is why they are a great early-adopter technology for the gamer geeks of the world. We are precisely the people who have *already* done all we can to transport ourselves into relatively solitary (in terms of genuine, physical proximity) otherworldly experiences. So VR goggles are perfect for those of us who are already gamers. And they will find a somewhat larger market among people who want to experience this sort of thing (kind of like super-duper 3D TVs).
But in their current form they are never going to be the thing that makes cyberspace ubiquitous. In a full cyberspace, you will have to be able to look directly at someone else *whether they are physically adjacent or not*, and you will have to see them — including their full face, or whatever full facial mapping their avatar is using — directly. This implies some substantially different display technology — see-through AR goggles a la CastAR, or nanotech internally illuminated contact lenses, or retinally scanned holograms, or direct optical neural linkage. But strapping a pair of monitors to your eyeballs? Uh-uh. Always going to be a “let’s go to the movies / let’s hang in the living room playing games” experience; never ever going to be an “inhabit this ubiquitous cyber-world with all your friends” experience.
Maybe Zuckerberg and Luckey together actually have the vision to shepherd Oculus through this goggle period and into the final Really Immersive Cyberworld. But my guess is the pressures of making enough money to justify the deal will lead to various irritating wrongnesses. Still, I expect they will ship a really great Oculus product and I may even buy one if the games are cool enough… but there will be goggle competitors, and it’s best to think of ALL opaque goggle incarnations as gamer devices first and foremost.
So why did Zuckerberg do this deal? I think it’s simple: he has Sergey Brin envy. Google has its moon-shot projects (self-driving cars, humanoid robots, Google Glass). Zuckerberg wants a piece of that. It’s more interesting than the Facebook web site, and he is able to get his company to swing $2 billion on a side project, so why not? Plus he and Luckey are an epic mutual admiration society. That psychology alone is sufficient explanation. It does lead to the amusingly absurd paradox of Facebook spending $2 billion on something that hides users’ faces, but such is our industry, and such has it ever been.
Realistically, the jury is still out on whether Oculus would have been better off going it alone (retaining the love of their community and their pure gaming focus, but needing to raise more and more venture capital to ramp up production), or going with Facebook (no more worries about money, until Facebook’s ad-based business model starts to screw everything up). The former path might have cratered before launch, or succumbed to deeper-pocketed competitors. The latter path has every chance of going wrong — if Facebook handles things as they did their web gaming efforts, it definitely will. We will see whether Zuckerberg can keep Facebook’s hands off of Oculus or not. I am sadly not sanguine… on its face, this is a bad acquisition, since it does not at all play to the technology’s gaming strengths.
It’s worth noting Imogen Heap’s dataglove project on Kickstarter. I was skeptical that they would get funded, but their AMA on Reddit convinced me they are going about it the best way they can, and they have a clear vision for how the things should work. So now I say, more power to them! Go support them! They are definitely purely community-driven, the way Oculus was until yesterday….