All Tech Considered
4:56 pm
Wed March 26, 2014

Backlash To Facebook Buying Virtual Reality Firm Comes Swiftly

Originally published on Thu March 27, 2014 11:08 am

When Facebook purchases a company, you can often hear a collective groan go around the Internet — "There goes the neighborhood."

The Oculus VR acquisition announced Tuesday is Facebook's first high-profile hardware purchase — a very popular one, too. Since debuting on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter two years ago, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset quickly became the most-talked-about device in gaming.

Virtual reality is so hot that Sony announced its own VR headset — Project Morpheus — last week, and even showed one of the first games made for the Oculus Rift running on Sony hardware: the starfighter simulator EVE: Valkyrie.

Gamers and developers alike have been expecting big things from Oculus, and even speculating about an acquisition — just not by Facebook.

"I'd say I was pretty shocked," says E McNeil, the developer of a virtual reality game called Darknet. His first reaction to news of the Oculus acquisition was pretty common among his fellow developers, he says. "A lot of people were thinking that maybe Microsoft would try to purchase Oculus — or some other gaming company, and I guess Facebook is involved in gaming. No one really saw this coming. A lot of people are surprised right now."

Some of that surprise has turned to anger; many of the hundreds of comments on the Oculus blog post announcing the deal can't be read on air. The commenters accuse Oculus of abandoning its grass-roots vision, and worry that Oculus headsets will be flooded with Facebook's ads.

The companies are strange bedfellows.

"Facebook is distraction-ware, and Oculus Rift is definitely not distraction-ware; it requires the application of a device to your face, and it's arresting, and it's immersive," says game industry journalist Leigh Alexander.

Unlike clunkier attempts at virtual reality in the 1980s and '90s, the Oculus Rift provides what developers call "presence." Putting on the snorkel-like Oculus mask feels like diving into another world — ironically, like one free of the technological distractions of our own.

Facebook, on the other hand, is synonymous with casual games like Candy Crush Saga that marry classic game mechanics with lucrative microtransactions, like paying for extra moves.

"Facebook promised that it was going to be a viable platform for game developers before, and there's a lot of reasons why that hasn't gone so well, or why that fad was particularly short-lived," Alexander says. "Even though there are games like Candy Crush that are still played pretty actively on Facebook, I think there are a lot of developers that would prefer to continue innovating and go in another direction."

A lot more is at stake with virtual reality than just games. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisions the Oculus being used to take people courtside at sports games, and into distant classrooms. He calls it a "new communication platform."

Danfung Dennis is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who is already at work on a film designed for the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets. He says Facebook is just looking to stay ahead of the curve.

"This is a fundamentally new medium. A new form of computing. So I think it's natural for any company that is trying to build a stake in the future and is trying to have a stake in the next major platform to be considering VR," he says.

Oculus' founder, 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, took to Reddit on Tuesday night to make his case for the buyout. And there's no shortage of explaining the company will be expected to do: At least one high-profile project, an adaption of the popular game Minecraft, has already been canceled. The creator of Minecraft went so far as to call Facebook "creepy."

Some would-be Oculus developers are pledging to cancel their orders for the latest development kits that they would have used to build new software for the headset.

Alexander says this could be a heat-of-the-moment reaction by gamers. "We're used to pressing a button when something comes up, and I think right now we're in knee-jerk mode."

Not all developers see the purchase as a bad thing: There's a silver lining in the deep pockets that Facebook brings to Oculus. Facebook's billions can evolve Oculus far faster than the startup would have been able to on its own, and the social network says Oculus will continue to operate independently, much as Instagram has.

Turnstyle News is a tech and digital culture site from Youth Radio.

Copyright 2014 Turnstyle. To see more, visit http://turnstylenews.com/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Facebook has announced another huge acquisition. The company plans to buy the virtual reality startup Oculus VR for $2 billion in cash and stock. Oculus manufactures a headset that makes video gamers feel as if they're right in the middle of the action. And Noah Nelson of Turnstyle News tells us there are mixed reactions to the news.

NOAH NELSON: When Facebook purchases a company, like Instagram or Whatsapp, you can often hear a collective groan go around the Internet: there goes the neighborhood. The Oculus acquisition is no different and it's the first time Facebook has bought announced a high-profile hardware company. Since debuting on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter just 18 months ago, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has been the most talked about device in video games.

Virtual reality is hot. Sony just announced its own VR headset, Project Morpheus, last week, and even showed one of the first games made for the Oculus Rift, "EVE: Valkyrie," running on Sony hardware. Putting on the Rift headset, which resembles blacked out ski goggles, gives the player a sense of total immersion in the world of the game.

Game enthusiasts and developers have bought more than 60,000 developer kits. E McNeil is one of them. He developed a virtual reality game called Darknet.

E MCNEIL: A lot of people were thinking that maybe Microsoft would try to purchase Oculus or some other gaming company, and I guess Facebook is involved in gaming. But no one really saw this coming.

NELSON: Some of that surprise has been positive; jumping from $2 million in crowdfunding to a $2 billion sale brought a round of congratulations. It also sparked a wave of anger. Many of the hundreds of comments on the Oculus blog post announcing the deal can't be read on air. The posts accuse Oculus of abandoning its grassroots vision, and worry that Oculus headsets will be flooded with Facebook's ads.

The companies are strange bedfellows, says game industry journalist Leigh Alexander.

LEIGH ALEXANDER: Facebook is distraction-ware and Oculus Rift is definitely not distraction-ware. It requires the application of a device to your face, and it's arresting and it's immersive.

NELSON: Unlike clunkier attempts at virtual reality in the '80s and '90s, the Oculus Rift provides what developers call presence. The experience is like diving into world. Virtual reality holds promise beyond just video games. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg hopes that Oculus will be used to take people courtside at sporting events and into distant classrooms. He calls it a new communications platform.

Danfung Dennis is an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who is already at work on a film designed for virtual reality headsets. He says that Facebook is just looking to stay ahead of the curve.

DANFUNG DENNIS: This is a fundamentally new medium. This is a new form of computing.

NELSON: Oculus's founder, 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, took to Reddit last night where he often interacts with developers and fans. He went point by point on a number of criticisms from angry enthusiasts. Some would-be Oculus developers have threatened to cancel their orders for the latest development kits. Leigh Alexander says this could be a heat of the moment reaction.

ALEXANDER: Gamers are people who react immediately. You know, we're used to pressing a button when something comes up and I think right now we're in kneejerk mode.

NELSON: Founder Palmer Luckey says the deal will let Oculus take risks that were otherwise impossible, promising a better Rift with fewer compromises delivered sooner. For its part, the social network says Oculus will continue to operate independently, much as Instagram has. What was once a quirky indie effort is now in hyperdrive. Virtual reality is coming, whether you're ready or not.

For NPR News, I'm Noah Nelson.

CORNISH: Noah Nelson is a reporter for TurnstyleNews.com, a tech and digital culture site from Youth Radio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.