'What's Oculus Rift?' And Other Questions About Facebook's New Foray Into Virtual Reality

“The dominant reaction to the move could be summed up in three letters: WTF.”
Is this the future of Facebook? (Wikimedia Commons)

Late yesterday, Facebook made an announcement: It has acquired the virtual reality startup Oculus VR, the maker of the Oculus Rift headset, for around $2 billion in cash and stock. The news excited some in the tech industry, and confused many others. (As Alexis summed it up: “The dominant reaction to the move could be summed up in three letters: WTF.”)

For those outside the industry, however, there was another question at hand: What exactly is Oculus Rift?

Below, some FAQs.

First things first: What's Oculus Rift?

It’s a virtual-reality display used primarily, at this point, for gaming. The Oculus hardware features a headset that fits over the wearer’s eyes, completely covering his or her field of vision. The interior of the headset—which, significantly, is much lighter than traditional virtual reality sets have been—features a screen that is easy to look at over long periods of time. The idea of the screen is to mimic, in 3D, settings of everyday life.

Here’s one example of what an Oculus scene looks like—as seen through this crazily realistic representation of Jerry Seinfeld's apartment:

Does Oculus actually work, though? Isn’t virtual reality more “virtual” than reality at this point?  

That’s the thing about the Oculus: Its technology represents a significant improvement over previous, clunky incarnations of virtual reality. (Remember the disaster that was Nintendo’s Virtual Boy?) VR may have been a pipe dream since the ‘60s and a joke since the ‘90s; Oculus Rift is promising to make virtual reality a desirable consumer product. And many critics think it can keep that promise.

In part, that’s because Oculus VR’s technology has managed to create digital spaces that resemble physical ones much more closely than previous VR devices have. The Oculus, according to Business Insider’s Steve Kovach, “makes you feel like you're truly immersed in a virtual environment. It's one of those things you have to try to fully understand.” In the words of another Oculus tester, “Oculus games make Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty played on a TV look like Pong.” Using the headset, furthermore, was “one of the most completely bizarre, wonderful, unique, laugh-out-loud, ‘holy cow!’ video experiences I have ever had.”

As a result, the Oculus has been nominated for Best of E3 Game Critics Awards two years in a row, and in 2013 it won for "Best in Hardware/Periphery.” Many critics claim that the device has “put virtual reality back on the map.”

Any relation to Optimus Prime?

No.

But if Oculus is so great, then why do people seem so surprised that Facebook has acquired it?

Partly it’s that Oculus, despite its popularity among gamers and its buy-in from the tech community, is still a small start-up. (It got its start on Kickstarter, where, in a 2012 campaign that sought $250,000 in funding, it raised more than $2 million. It remains one of Kickstarter's most successful campaigns.) And, furthermore, Oculus has been focused on what many have seen as a niche technology for a niche demographic—hard-core gamers.

Also worth noting is the fact that Oculus VR still hasn’t actually shipped a product to the public. While Oculus has so far taken more than 75,000 orders for its headsets, those devices have been developer editions that have been aimed at getting developers interested adapting the Oculus technology. (This is similar to Google Glass’s “Explorer” program.) The consumer version of the Oculus Rift won’t likely be available to the broad public until late 2014 or early 2015. So Oculus has existed in a kind of VR-PR limbo: It’s a product, but it’s not yet a consumer product.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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