Why did Facebook buy Oculus in 2014?

Those who have tried virtual reality (VR) attest to the intense immersive experience the technology offers. Products such as the Oculus Rift headset and the HTC Vive have excited game developer as they open new possibilities to how video games can be played.

Last summer I experienced VR via an Oculus Rift at a friend’s house and I can confirm that the VR hype is real; the gaming experience was absolutely sublime. Playing Robo Recall was the closest I will ever be to fulfilling my boyhood fantasies of shooting evil robots, dodging bullets, and being a cyberpunk badass. Robo Recall falls into the popular first-person shooter genre of games, but the use of VR gives a whole new dimension to the term “first-person.” To look around, I had to move my head up and down, left and right. To aim, I had to hold up my arm and look down the sights of my gun. To switch between my pistol and my shotgun, instead of tapping the “e” key like in every other shooter, I actually had to physically holster my pistol on my hip and draw my shotgun from my back. The game introduced other ridiculous game elements such as grabbing and throwing the evil robots, and catching bullets as they fly at your face and throwing them back at your assailants

VR seems like the next paradigm shift in gaming; so then why did Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of a social media platform, decide to buy Oculus, the main pioneer of consumer VR? The man doesn’t seem like a hardcore gamer.

While gaming was Oculus’s original focus, Zuckerberg thinks that VR can turn into a valuable communication tool. When he announced the $2 billion acquisition on Facebook on March 25, 2014, he listed sitting court side at a game, studying with teachers across the globe, and consulting doctors face-to-face from miles away as potential experiences one can possibly have with a VR headset. His goals are grand; he wants to see one billion users on VR in the not so distant future. For sure a large chunk of those users will be using the technology as a form of escapism into games and dreamscapes but Facebook truly believes that VR will facilitate its mission of promoting social connections.

Facebook dreams that one day basic social interaction on the platform such as phone calls, video calls, and writing on people’s walls (imagine writing on an actual wall in VR) will be done with avatars in a virtual setting.  The company believes that social interaction via VR an be both fluid and meaningful and it is currently working on a software platform called Spaces in which these avatars can interact with each other, like whatever these two gentlemen are doing here:

(Right now it looks a little like the game The Sims and not in a good way, maybe entering uncanny valley)

Facebook hopes that interactions within these Spaces can be a fulfilling means of social interaction with friends and family when of course, physical interaction is out of reach. The company is also working on an app called Venues in which users can watch live concerts, shows, sports, and premiers of movies with their friends using VR.

Interestingly, an initial experiment with VR by Facebook has shown that while VR can be used to communicate with friends and family, it can also be used to forge new friendships. In the experiment, a sample of 60 participles with zero to little VR experience were paired with a total stranger to engage in a conversation but half of those pairs were having a conversation in Facebook’s virtual setting (a train car) while the other half spoke face to face. Facebook teamed up with Neurons Inc. to analyze brain activity during the conversations and they found that those who communicated over VR were at ease. The VR group showed positive motivation overall and were kept within optimal cognitive effort. 93% of the VR group said that they liked the other person. The results were especially positive for those who consider themselves introverts with 83% of them saying they wanted to be friends with the other person while 57% of extroverts said they wanted to be friends. Those subjected to VR also reported that they were more at ease with sharing more personal information. While this is just one experiment (and a biased one too), its results show that VR could possibly have mass appeal and be used to meet new people.

Despite all the ambition and hope for social VR, adoption have been slow. It has almost been four years since Facebook acquired Oculus and the progress is basically unnoticeable unless you pay close attention. Social VR is not going to reach one billion users unless Facebook overcomes a few technological and social hurdles. With phone and video calls, we figured out how to record and transmit voice and video to enhance communication but for VR we need to figure out how to record and transmit body language accurately, which has proven to be daunting a technical challenge. Getting body language right is crucial to the success of VR since it plays such an important role in communication; body language is so intuitive, universal, and powerful that even babies are able to pick up on it.  On another front, attitudes toward VR is not exactly were Facebook wants it to be. Some people still regard VR as only an expensive niche gaming platform or, at worst, a new way to isolate ourselves further. Recently social VR faced its first PR fallout when Mark Zuckerberg tried to demonstrate that VR can used to spread awareness of natural disasters and other humanitarian issues. Viewers saw a cartoon version of Mark Zuckerberg and Rachel Franklin, the chief of social VR, bobble around the hurricane torn landscape of Puerto Rico. The demo did not sit well with viewers. The Youtube comments for the teaser trailer of Facebook Spaces is overwhelmingly negative as well.

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(When South Park satirizes your technology, you know things aren’t going well.)

In the face of these challenges Mark Zuckerberg is not likely to back down from his ambitions. Earlier this year he testified that Facebook will have to invest $3 billion dollars to make his VR vision a reality. Back in 2014, Facebook made the call that the next big thing in social networks will be VR. If the technology ever hits the mainstream, Facebook wants to dominate it all, a one stop shop for all social VR. That is why the company bought Oculus and given Zuckerberg’s previous success, it’s probably going to happen eventually.

What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts.

 

 

Sources:

http://time.com/4881487/facebook-vr-spaces-preview/

https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/15/16478084/interview-rachel-franklin-spaces-social-vr-facebook

https://www.facebook.com/iq/articles/how-virtual-reality-facilitates-social-connection

https://venturebeat.com/2018/02/11/pr-has-been-vrs-greatest-failure/

https://www.theverge.com/2016/12/7/13857144/social-vr-carnegie-mellon-panoptic-studio-facebook-oculus-toybox

https://www.popsci.com/mark-zuckerberg

The Unexpected Management Genius of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg

https://www.theverge.com/2017/10/9/16450346/zuckerberg-facebook-spaces-puerto-rico-virtual-reality-hurricane

7 comments

  1. My first thought goes to the conversation we had about the aging demographic of Facebook and the obvious adoption curve a technology like this will have. I can’t imagine my older brother or parents ever buying into this medium for communication. On the other hand, I am currently in a long distance relationship with my partner in Seattle and I am excited about any possibility to make the distance feel smaller. I think Zuck’s intuition that this has a future in communication is spot on.

  2. I found this to be a very ambitious acquisition for Facebook when I was reading the case the other day for class. Do I see a world where VR communication is possible yes but I don’t see it being achievable unless other milestones are hit first.

    VR gaming has yet to be adopted widely. It requires a strong gaming computer and a VR headset which up until recently, was out of the price range of many consumers. I believe the Oculus Rift had a price drop this summer to $400, trying to entice more consumers to purchase one. The two-sided market which exists for Playstation and Xbox creates strong incentives for developers to create great content. Video Game studios know that consumers will purchase the consoles so they lack the hesitation to create great content, something which holds back current VR developers. I don’t believe that these interactions will be advanced enough to drive the VR gear to be purchased. The headsets will need to be acquired for other reasons and then the social technology will be driven by the larger number of consumers. Great gameplay though, really enjoyed watching it!

    1. While I agree with you that having to buy more hardware is a huge barrier to VR adoption, tech companies seem to be working on make hardware more affordable. Recently Oculus announced the Oculus Go, a portable headset costing $199. Google Cardboard is literally a $15 dollar piece of cardboard and glass that can convert a smartphone to a VR headset. I can also see the scenario of Facebook selling VR hardware at cost of materials just to get people to use VR.

      I agree with your point that VR’s primary driver of future sales probably won’t be social media. Other application such as gaming and even healthcare seem to have more immediate benefits. @mqzhang wrote a great blogpost detailing the use of VR in healthcare.

  3. Hi James!

    Well written post and I enjoyed how you wrote with a neutral tone, listing both the good and bad of VR. I personally have yet to experience VR, but know there is actually a “VR gaming bar” near my house in Bayside that has done tons of business. I think Mark’s current dream is a bit ambitious, but certainly within the realm of gaming we are almost as VR pioneers fruition. You can see that in the fact that Playstation recently released their own VR system while Nintendo has opted to go a completely different route with Nintendo Labo.
    I was a bit confused as to whether Mark wants to have basically live streaming VR (so your own avatar appears virtually in a location live) because that to me while extremely difficult, would take out the issue of commuting that haunts so many businesses. That being said we should definitely be careful because we don’t want to wind-up in one of those sci-fi films where people literally live in the virtual world, rather than the real one.

    1. Glad that you enjoyed it. I’m not sure if Mark is planning on having your avatar appear live at places with the Venues app. If true, that definitely would be something out of sci-fi. I don’t think he’s trying to implement that for now. As for your concern of people living in a virtual world, I’m generally optimistic of our abilities to avoid Black Mirror-esque scenarios. But I do have concerns of VR addiction, could be like social media addition but way worse

  4. Nice post. I have no doubt that VR is the future, the question is how quickly that future will get here. I’ve been hearing about VR since I was in college, and it has always been “just around the corner.” I do think we’re definitely closer, but some of the technical and user-interface issues have yet to be fixed. There are a bunch of funny YouTube videos of people falling over while using VR.

  5. At Wework in Cambridge there is a guy from bostonvr.org (I think that’s the website) and he allows people to play the game for awhile. Admittedly I have not taken up the offer yet. Just like a lot of technical aspects just a few years ago were hard to build an online course, now many technical aspects or barriers have been eliminated. VR is still a novelty so I would expect mainstream to still take a few years with FB pushing the concept more for the opposed to change crowd.

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