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Backlash to Facebook Buying Virtual Reality Firm Comes Swiftly

on Wednesday, Mar. 26th

A version of this story aired on NPR’s All Things Considered.

When Facebook purchases a company, you can often hear a collective groan go around the internet — “there goes the neighborhood.” The social network’s purchase of Instagram and WhatsApp gave Facebook access to a younger and more global user base.

But the Oculus acquisition is the first time Facebook has bought a high-profile hardware company, one that comes with a pre-exisitng fanbase. Since debuting on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter 18 months ago, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset has been the most talked about device in video games.

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.

Putting on the Rift headset gives the player a sense of total immersion in the world of the game, and game enthusiasts have snatched up every prototype they can get their hands on – more than 60 thousand are already in the wild.

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,” said E. MacNeil, 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 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.

“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.”

Unlike clunkier attempts at virtual reality in the 80s 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,” said Alexander. “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’s Mark Zuckerberg envisions the Oculus being used to take people courtside at sports games, 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 the Oculus Rift and other VR headsets. He says that 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 said.

Oculus’s founder, 21-year-old Palmer Luckey, took to Reddit last 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.

Leigh 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 start-up would have been able to on its own, and 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.

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