Oculus Rift & Facebook

I’ve been following Oculus Rift with quite a bit of excitement since they first appeared on the scene.  I’ve always been excited by VR, and purchased my first pair of VR goggles (with head tracking) back in 1996.  I have since owned several different pairs of VR headsets, and in all honesty, they haven’t improved much since my first pair in 1996.  That is, until the Oculus Rift.  When I first tried them, I was blown away by how much better they looked than previous glasses.  Instead of getting a viewpoint that looked like I was looking at the world through binoculars (which doesn’t provide a very immersive experience), the Oculus Rift offers not quite full periphal vision, but a much wider view than what I had seen before.  This is what makes all the difference in immersion.  There is one thing problem that I’ve always experienced with VR headsets, and the Oculus Rift is no exception.  Your normal video game experience doesn’t translate well to VR, with the exception of games where you drive vehicles.  The reason is that when you’re wearing the headseat, you’re required to look around, but if you’re standing up or trying to rotate very quickly, it is difficult to maintain your balance, you have a tendency to bump into your surroundings, and you get tied up in the cables leaving your headset.  This isn’t a huge problem if you’re playing a racing game, or a flying game, or walking around in a giant mech, because you can be seated, but in these cases the virtual reality experience you are getting is one very close to the experience you are having in real life.  So although it can be a very good experience, there isn’t a wide variety of experiences you can offer.

I read an article a few months ago by a writer who tried the Oculus Rift, and he had similar feelings about virtual reality that I have.  He went on to describe the most interesting experience he had with the Oculus headset was not an active simulation, but a concert video filmed at one of Beck’s shows.  The show had been filmed on stage, and with a number of different cameras, which they had then hooked up to an interactive experience.  You were able to stand on stage, with Beck, and watch him and his band play their show, and he said that it was that experience that really sold him on VR.  For the first time, he felt truly immersed in the world he was in, but instead of it being an active experience, it was one much more passive than he was used to.

So there’s been a ton of consternation on the internet about how Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook are going to completely destroy Oculus Rift and the experience that they were aiming for.  Now I’m not a huge fan of Facebook, and I like the hardcore gaming experience as much as the next person, but I always wondered how Oculus was going to overcome the same problems I had experienced with VR in the past.  Although it provided a superior experience, it wasn’t addressing what I felt was the biggest impediment to widespread adoption of VR.  The more I think about it though, this may be the best thing to happen to VR yet.  I think the most compelling experience it is going to offer is a way to interact with other people, say sitting around a table having a discussion, or watching a concert together, but doing it virtually.  This is what Facebook is bringing to the table in the deal (besides an enormous sum of money).  If Facebook hadn’t bought them, my prediction that they would have underwhelmed considerably when they launched and would have disappeared, because I have yet to see the killer app that is going to sell these things like crazy.  But interaction with other people?  With your friends?  Experiencing things together, virtually, not like a video call on Skype, but as an immersive experience where you’re removed from your surroundings and brought together in an environment that you can completely control?  That’s compelling.  I think it’s great (despite my feelings about Facebook), and I think because of the purchase, Oculus is going to be a market success.  And because of that success, we (the hard core gamers) will get better and better VR experiences (as well as world’s coolest chatrooms).  We’ll get cheap VR headsets that will no longer be high priced specialty products for the geeks out there.