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

By Megan Garber

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.

Does the Oculus Rift have competitors?

Yes, sort of. Just last week, Sony announced its own virtual reality headset, Project Morpheus. It’s designed for the Playstation 4.

Sorry, but this whole thing sounds really nerdy.

It is.

So, okay: What does Facebook get out of the Oculus deal?

On the one hand, the Oculus acquisition should help Facebook to develop a better gaming platform—imagine, say, Farmville in 3D. (Or don’t, because that’s terrifying.) But on the other hand, and much more broadly, Oculus’s technology should be able to help Facebook developers to create immersive virtual spaces that digitally mimic those of the physical world.

Here’s Mark Zuckerberg, commenting on the acquisition:

After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home. 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.

So, basically, you can read the Oculus acquisition as a signal on Facebook’s part that it sees its future as infrastructural: It wants to host you (and your friends, and your family, and your acquaintances) in all manner of virtual spaces. It wants to keep you on its platform by digitally recreating the most fundamental platform there is: the physical world.

But Facebook is a social network. Why is it interested in helping us share "unbounded spaces and experiences" in the first place?

Partly, it’s that Facebook seems to be betting that the post-mobile future of computing will involve virtual reality. The Oculus acquisition in that sense, as The New York Times put it, is “a bet that a technology commonly associated with science fiction can help eventually turn social networking into an immersive, 3-D experience.”

And you know what immersive, 3-D experiences can be really good for? Advertising. In a call with reporters yesterday, Zuckerberg mentioned the potential Oculus offers for a virtual communication network—one that would not only allow people to buy and sell virtual goods, but that would also, down the line, represent a new ad platform for the social network.

There’s also the broader value to Facebook, though: An investment in Oculus is one more way for Facebook to diversify its portfolio. It’s a hedge, essentially, for the future. As Alexis noted yesterday:

All these moves are about technology companies looking to create businesses off the computer/mobile screen. In a world where smartphone sales growth is going to level off soon, where social networking growth has already slowed, where everyone already uses Google ... where do companies go to continue the revenue growth that is baked into their current share prices? 

Maybe they go after a share of TV money, or bet on the Internet of Things, or get in early with the explosion of consumer robotics.

These massively valuable companies need to grab some land in whatever big technology wave comes next. And they are starting to buy where they think the fertile territory is.

One last question: Did Reddit really predict the Oculus acquisition a month before the news was made public?

Seems that way, yes. Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg should start wearing disguises on the way to and from his business meetings.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/whats-oculus-rift-and-other-questions-about-facebooks-new-foray-into-virtual-reality/359612/