So, if you haven’t heard yet, Facebook announced today the purchase agreement of Oculus VR, Inc., the company behind the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. Many people are worried about what this means for the device, others are concerned (as always) with privacy issues, and still others are just puzzled as to why Facebook would want it in the first place.
I’m not terribly worried about Thing 1 and Thing 2, but that’s just me. I’m sure the Oculus Rift will still come out and be much the same device as we expect it to be now. As for privacy concerns, the Oculus Rift is designed heavily around gaming and a lot less around “3D Facebook”, so the data it can gather from users will be quite different (though some of it could be a pretty big deal) than what Facebook is typically after. Surely there will be data worth mining, especially if Facebook decides to try and take on Google in any aspects of its business again in the future. But, for the most part, tracking which games you play doesn’t provide nearly as much critical data as what websites you visit, what you buy, and who your friends are (and what websites they visit, etc.)
As for why Facebook would want the Oculus Rift, I find that a much simpler conundrum. I can think of three key reasons for Facebook’s desire to own the VR company.
- If Facebook owns Oculus Rift, Google doesn’t. It’s a no-brainer that Google would be interested in Oculus Rift. Their Glass project focuses on augmented reality rather than virtual reality, but there is still a great deal of overlap. Plus, since Oculus Rift is self-contained hardware designed for playing games and watching media in 3D, it appeals to a different subset of tech culture. A Glass-powered Oculus Rift would give Google all the same data that Facebook likely wants, but it could also be paired with an Android smartphone to give Google more access and ecosystem control. Facebook has more money than it needs and buying up a company simply to prevent Google makes business sense. Especially if Facebook already has an idea on what to do with Oculus Rift.
- Facebook is looking to a future without Facebook.com. No, Facebook’s social network isn’t going away, but it almost certainly could one day. MySpace was unstoppable until it wasn’t. Facebook could simply be trying to make sure that if and when that day comes, they’ve got additional revenue streams to keep things going. Wearable tech is shaping up to be a big part of the future and Facebook is trying to get in on the ground floor, rather than waiting until it’s too late to carve out a niche (like they did with the Facebook phone). By selling hardware that could be the definitive way to play games and watch movies in the future, Facebook is positioning itself to move away from social networking and to become an ecosystem of its own. Which brings me to…
- Facebook is starting its own gaming platform and network. Right now, if you ask a console gamer if they’re on Xbox Live or PSN, you can’t be certain of the answer you receive. But, if you ask a PC gamer if they’re on Steam, you almost always get a “Yes.” There are other alternatives to Steam out there, but none with the clout and popularity of Valve’s little digital store that could. Considering that Steam is making a play for the living room, Facebook could have seen the Oculus Rift as a way to get a foothold there, as well. Sure, they could just try to work side-by-side with Steam and other PC developers to make sure their hardware is the definitive virtual reality headset, but Facebook could also be planning to simply build their own Steam alternative. And why not? They already command the largest curated list of friends online. Their social platform has been used to effectively leverage mob tactics to generate a large amount of revenue for a number of web-based games. Imagine turning that power loose on Borderlands 3 or Grand Theft Auto Eleventy-Five. Steam has already integrated Facebook to make it easier for players to find their friends. But that requires players to link their Steam and Facebook accounts. Facebook could find all your friends instantly and tell them what games you’re playing lately.
Of course, there are major positives and negatives to Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus Rift. What looked like promising tech that could change the face of PC gaming might now become just another tool to harvest personal information. Major players may decide not to support it for fear of alienating gamers that don’t trust Facebook with their personal data. Sony now has a major opportunity, though. Project Morpheus will likely be a PS4 exclusive at release, but it will almost certainly find its way to PCs via third-party drivers. Sony could even release official drivers if they felt they could make enough money on the hardware to justify not controlling the profits from games (or to prevent Microsoft or someone else from doing the same).
I will be keeping an eye on Oculus Rift and the VR market, in general. Things in this space are just heating up.