Virtual reality has an unexpected new champion. Facebook has announced its surprise purchase of Oculus VR, the maker of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, for $2 billion. Image: Artist Tom Estes trying out a VR headset
Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online but entire experiences. Say hello to the Oculus Rift, the virtual reality headset that’s got the tech and gaming community abuzz. And now Mark Zuckerberg has put together a deal comprised of $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares of Facebook stock in order to buy Oculus VR. Not bad for a company that first shot to fame with a Kickstarter campaign for the Oculus Rift headset. The Facebook CEO has said: ’
“Oculus’s mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences,” said Zuckerberg.
The obvious question though is what does Facebook want with what was a start-up company aimed primarily at hardcore PC gamers? The response from hardcore gamers and developers has been predictably reactionary, with Minecraft creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson immediately cancelling an Oculus Rift version of Minecraft. In fact he got so angry about the whole deal he then went on to write a blog about how virtual reality is going to change the world but Facebook is ‘creepy’. And as you might imagine many ordinary Kickstarter backers have also been demanding their money back.
$2 billion does seem an awful lot when virtual reality has been a commonplace idea for many years now and Oculus VR don’t own any important patents on the technology. This is evident from Sony’s recently unveiled Project Morpheus, which many have already described as superior to Oculus Rift.
Back in October 2010, Stanford University graduates Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger launched a new iPhone application, Instagram, yet another oddly named tech start-up in a crowded field of hopefuls. Two years later, the two twenty-somethings sold their photo-sharing service—which had about a dozen employees and no revenue—to Facebook Inc. for $1 billion in cash and stock.
So as you might imagine gaming isn’t really what Facebook is interested in. Oculus Rift was created by Palmer Luckey is a young guy from California, smart as a whip, and obsessed with virtual reality. After amassing a serious collection of the day’s top virtual reality tech, he realized nothing came close to the Matrix-like experience he wanted. So, he decided to build it himself. Perhaps what Facebook creator and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is doing is buying up not the technology but any potential future competition. Smile, guys you’re now multimillionaires.
As Zuckerberg revealed as Facebook’s reasons for the deal:
‘Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,’ ‘Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.’
‘This is just the start’, wrote Zuckerberg. ‘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.’
‘Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can’t wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us’.
Image: Artist Tom Estes trying out a VR headset
But how is the Rift different from prior attempts at head mounted VR? Instead of a 30- or 40-degree field of view (a screen with edges), the Rift offers a 110-degree field of view. There’s no discernible edge to the Rift’s curved 7”, 1280 x 800 display. The screen is split into 640 x 800 halves, lowering the resolution per eye, but allowing the world to be rendered stereoscopically—that is pairing two side-by-side images viewed from slightly different angles (parallax) to make things appear 3D. You’re fully immersed in the game-world.
The headset uses a gyroscope, accelerometer, and magnetometer to translate head movements into changes in perspective in the virtual world. In the past, high latency, or how much time it takes the system to translate physical movements into virtual ones, has been a limiting factor. Carmack believes the “magic number for immersive VR” is 20 millisecond latency. Get it faster than 20 milliseconds, and humans can’t detect a delay. (For more detail, check out this dense meditation on VR latency on Carmack’s blog.)
The Rift’s latency from head movement to game engine is down to 2 milliseconds, thanks to a proprietary chip (as opposed to the off-the-shelf sensor used in the early prototype). But total latency is still above that 20 millisecond threshold, in large part due to how long it takes the LCD screen to update. (Improving screen technology, made cheaper and in smaller form factors, will likely improve this lag in coming years.)
Resolution is a consistently noted drawback to the Rift. And it still only allows for head tracking, as opposed to full body position tracking. You can’t move your hand in the real world and see it in the virtual world.
But neither is doomed to remain a major stumbling block. Compact displays are moving to higher resolution at lower price points. And as for body tracking, although Carmack says the old Kinect added too much latency, maybe the newly released Kinect 2 would work better. Or maybe a custom version of Leap Motion’s super high-resolution (1/100 mm) gesture tracking technology would pair nicely with a set of VR goggles. (Any developers happen to get both?)
It’s hard not to want an Oculus Rift in your home right now. But there’s no word yet on the consumer version—only “we’re working tirelessly to make it available as soon as possible.” The firm has shipped 6,000 developer kits and aims to send the other 1,500 out by the end of May. The all-important developer phase will likely go through the end of the year. And well it should. Anticipation and expectations will be sky-high, and delivering that first, jaw dropping moment at home will be critical.