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Musings on the Oculus Sale
by Raph Koster on 03/26/14 07:19:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Rendering was never the point.

Oh, it’s hard. But it’s rapidly becoming commodity hardware. That was in fact the basic premise of the Oculus Rift: that the mass market commodity solution for a very old dream was finally approaching a price point where it made sense. The patents were expiring; the panels were cheap and getting better by the month. The rest was plumbing. Hard plumbing, the sort that calls for a Carmack, maybe, but plumbing.

Rendering is the dream of a game industry desperately searching for a new immersion, another step in the ongoing escalation of immersion that has served as the economic engine of ongoing hardware replacement, the false god of “games getting better.” It was an out: the plucky indie that bucked the big consoles but still gave us the AAA. It was supposed to enable “art.”

But rendering was never the point. 

Look, there are a few big visions for the future of computing doing battle.

There’s a wearable camp, full of glasses and watches. It’s still nascent, but its doom is already waiting in the wings; biocomputing of various sorts (first contacts, then implants, nano, who knows) will unquestionably win out over time, just because glasses and watches are what tech has been removing from us, not getting us to put back on. Google has its bets down here.

There’s a beacon-y camp, one where mesh networks and constant broadcasts label and dissect everything around us, blaring ads and enticing us with sales coupons as we walk through malls. In this world, everything is annotated and shouting at a digital level, passing messages back and forth. It’s an ubicomp environment where everything is “smart.” Apple has its bets down here.

These two things are going to get married. One is the mouth, the other the ears. One is the poke, the other the skin. And then we’re in a cyberpunk dream of ads that float next to us as we walk, getting between us and the other people, our every movement mined for Big Data.

In this world, what is Oculus? What is something as simple as a mere social network? After all, a social network is just ubicomp on people; Facebook on a watch or a pair of glasses is just another way to say that we’ll have our own set of semantic tags and labels stuck on our flesh, with those with the eyes to see. Worse, it’s one that relies on what we say, which is very different from what we do. It’s one that relies on supposed friend networks that are self-reported, when soon enough biometric data will report back up who we actually care about, how our pulse quickens when in the presence of the right person.

I have a deep respect for the technical scale that FB operates at. The cyberspace we want for VR will be at this scale.

— John Carmack (@ID_AA_Carmack) March 26, 2014

The virtue of Oculus lies in presence.

A startling, unusual sort of presence. Immersion is nice, but presence is something else again. Presence is what makes Facebook feel like a conversation. Presence is what makes you hang out on World of Warcraft. Presence is what makes offices persist in the face of more than enough capability for remote work. Presence is why a video series can out-draw a text-based MOOC and presence is why live concerts can make more money than album sales.

Facebook is laying its bet on people, instead of smart objects. It’s banking on the idea that doing things with one another online — the thing that has fueled it all this time — is going to keep being important. This is a play to own walking through Machu Picchu without leaving home, a play to own every classroom and every museum. This is a play to own what you do with other people.

Oh, there will be room for games. But Oculus, in the end, serves Facebook by becoming the interface to other people online. I’d feel better about this if Facebook understood people, institutionally. I’m never quite sure if they do.

Long ago, at the Metaverse Roadmapping sessions, we discussed the ways in which virtuality could be used:

  1. Augmented reality
  2. Lifelogging
  3. Virtual worlds
  4. Mirror worlds

#2 is all Glass is currently useful for; a glorified video camera, until the augmented aspect kicks in. The addition of indoor mapping, beacons, Bluetooth LE, mesh networks, and suddenly the first two leap to life. Once it’s here, we’ll forget what life was like without it, swimming in a sea of data.

Facebook is placing its new bet on the bottom half. It already logs lives, in a way. It aspires to be the semantic tags on every abstract entity — that’s what Open Graph was about — but a lot of folks are fighting over that pie, not least of which is Google. What Oculus opens is the bottom two.

A while back I wrote

A lot of the praxis around virtual worlds — and indeed, games in general — has been co-opted by social mediaBut it doesn’t mean virtual worlds are over. They are metamorphosing, and like a caterpillar, on the path to mass market acceptance, they are shedding the excess legs and creepy worm-like looks in favor of something that doesn’t much resemble what it sprang from, but which a lot more people will like. And which will be a bit harder to pin down.

In that piece, I said the issues with virtual worlds, the reasons why they were fading, were because what virtual worlds offered was mostly just placeness, at a time when “good enough” placeness was available everywhere. But immersive VR raises the stakes on placeness.

Facebook’s purchase of Oculus is the first crack in the chrysalis of a new vision of a cyberspace, a Metaverse. It’s one that the Oculus guys have always shared. It wasn’t ever about the rendering for them either. Games were always a stepping stone. It was about placeness, and Facebook is providing the populace.

Is it enough to win out? I don’t know. The real world is mighty compelling. The sorts of dreams Oculus enables are the same damn dreams we’ve always had for virtual worlds:

  • attend a virtual concert
  • learn in a virtual classroom
  • talk to a virtual meeting
  • sleep with a virtual partner
  • slay a virtual dragon
  • build a virtual cathedral

Oh, it can be the best damn version of this ever. But to me the trends say that building the cathedral out of nano-based smart dust may end up being a bit more compelling. It certainly provides a more direct path to the money, and let’s not kid ourselves, anyone who spends $2 billion cares about the money.

Either way, no matter who wins out, it was never about the rendering.

All four of these visions have one thing in common: the servers.

It’s about who owns the servers.

The servers that store your metrics. The servers that shout the ads. The servers that transmit your chat. The servers that geofence your every movement.

It’s time to wake up to the fact that you’re just another avatar in someone else’s MMO. Worse. From where they stand, all-powerful Big Data analysts that they are, you look an awful lot like a bot.

The real race isn’t over the client — the glasses, watches, phones, or goggles. It’s over the servers. It’s over the operating system. The one that understands countless layers of semantic tags upon every object on earth, the one that knows who to show you in Machu Picchu, the one that lets you turn whole visualizations of reality on and off.

Hopefully, the one that isn’t owned by anyone. (I have a spec I started. But nobody wants it. Money, remember?)

Pshhht, rendering? We’ll get new client hardware, new client software. Big whoop. I’m a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life.

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Marvin Papin
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Hope that the vision of those societies using data without abusing from it will be true. But if world look likes something like :

attend a virtual concert
learn in a virtual classroom
talk to a virtual meeting
sleep with a virtual partner
/////////////////////////////// slay a virtual dragon
build a virtual cathedral

I'd like to say, that's gonna be sad. And personally, for me it's more about a nightmare rather than a dream. I prefer limit VR to entertainment. And eventually expect AR tool assisted classrooms, power points, visits, 'G'amasutra.

Jason French
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To each their own. Again, the "virtual concert/classroom/meeting/partner" whatever ó- these are all rendering details. I agree with Raph ó who owns the metrics behind what you're doing is what is the real issue here. If I want to go to virtual pokemon world and run around with pikachus, that's my own prerogative.

When someone else controls that data, and that world and doesn't have my best interests in mind, that's when things get sketch.

Amir Barak
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I think for me, at least, the concern and [somewhat kneejerky] response to the acquisition of the OculusVR team by Facebook comes from a far more poetic source.

I grew up on a steady diet of Science-Fiction and Fantasy novels, boardgames and tabletop RPGs and I still remember the first time I read Neuromancer. It resonated. The ideas within, the technology, the imperfect heroes. Then Cyberpunk came to be, followed by ShadowRun and, well, I was hooked. The terms cyberspace and virtual-reality not only originate from the Cyberpunk movement and concepts but still owe them a debt. A movement of individuality, of hackers and runners doing their work under the radar and against the big corporations. Of tinkerers working under tough conditions and scarping by because, hell, because they could. A movement which openly opposes our current direction towards corporate monopolies. I guess seeing the Oculus Rift tech and team brought those images into focus; made real.

On a business level I understand why they sold out to Facebook (or any corporation in the end), 2 billion dollars is a lot of money to back up a tech. And I wish them nothing but success. But personally (and, I know, quite impractically) I can't bring myself to support them...

Michael DeFazio
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I love the idea of oculus for providing immersion for certain applications whereby the movement is limited:
Flight Sims,Driving Sims,Listening to a virtual Lecture (in classroom),Virtual Meetings

I still haven't seen the "killer app" that makes me want to "disconnect" from this world for a spell and "plug into" a virtual one.

I see the value in augmented reality (with something like glass) as a more ubiquitous way of allowing humans to interact with the world and simultaneously a "virtual" world...and I'm not convinced the mass majority of people want to completely disconnect from the existing world and enter a virtual one for more than a few minutes... (The beauty of TV or the internet for that matter is that I can still watch it while I'm making a sandwich or ironing clothes... it's not demanding my full attention)

(And I honestly laugh at the idea of going to a "virtual concert", maybe it's me and I'm old?)

Paolo Gambardella
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It is an opportunity for Oculus VR to get in touch with a lot of people; maybe with the Facebook's speaker it will be not a niche device anymore.
There is only a simple reason why Zuck buyed OculusVR, imho: it MAY be the next big thing and it is cheap compared with the great team working on it. All the rest are interesting speculations, but there is a little bit of science fiction.

Jason French
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Definitely NOT science fiction. Maybe you don't quite see where this is headed, but to me it's blatantly obvious how quickly the singularity is approaching. This is stuff that has a dramatic impact on society.

Curtiss Murphy
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From my seat on the plane, squished between Jihad Joe and Living Large Larry, I texted my wife, "I log u". Which is how the spell-correcter translated it. And, I was amazed by the world I live in. With a single device, I can send a text, or my entire face, for hours on end, from another continent for no additional cost. I can know the sun will shine nicest at 1:15 PM, until I need my unbrella for the quick rain blowing through, at 3:15 PM, plus or minus 3 minutes.

Whether Kurzweil has the timing right, there is no mistaking that we are flying faster and faster toward a future I cannot comprehend. And the providers of big-data will own all of it.

Well done Koster - loved your ending: "Rendering? Weíll get new client hardware, new client software. Big whoop. Iím a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life."

TC Weidner
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I can only speak for myself but what I am looking for VR to do is to increase my immersion into IMAGINARY worlds. I want to fly a space ship and feel as of Iam really there, Fight epic battles, crawl dungeons etc etc.. You know things that arent possible in the real world......If I want to immerse myself in 3d life like conversation with friends.. umm its called leaving your couch and going out your front door.

Tadhg Kelly
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With respect to Raph, I think that the damage done here outweighs the benefit, and it likely turns Oculus into a boondoggle purchase for Mark Zuckerberg.

It's all well and good to talk about the high minded ideals of presence and such, but I think that's over-investing in the idea that Facebook really "gets" anything other than it's need to stay current. The company has a recent history of trying all sorts of initiatives that fail out of the gate (remember poke, how Facebook was going to replace email, how Paper was supposed to replace news, Facebook Home, the Facebook phone) and is starting to look increasingly like the next Yahoo!

So it has instead resorted to buying users (WhatsApp, Instagram) or investing in pie-in-the-sky projects like drone nets meant to encircle the world, and now virtual reality. My point isn't about the money, which is clearly there, but more the commitment. It's analogous to when eBay bought Skype for high minded ideals, but Skype just never fit. Facebook, the ultimate in casual web/mobile based lightweight daily checkins, is not the company with the right psychological fit for deep research technology projects.

Added to this is the untold damage to the Oculus brand by association. Let's be clear here: While the idea of virtual spaces and virtual worlds might well attach to the Oculus some day, virtuality is still all a bit Second Life. Likely it will prove empty. So Oculus really is all about games and gamers, and gamers completely hate Facebook, especially anything to do with Facebook and games. So by signing up with them Palmer Luckey has appeared to have essentially sold out to the great Satan, and you don't come back from that easily.

Tadhg Kelly
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You might be right but that's Google Glass and such, not Rift. Rift is right at the other end of that axis. It's heavy and powerful technology that requires a chunky PC to run... just as the world is walking away from the idea of the chunky PC.

The Valley also has a history of getting very excited by empty-shell tech project stuff with no substance, whereas the games industry is usually the place where substantial uses are found. Facebook wouldn't be Facebook, for example, but for games. PCs wouldn't be as powerful as they are either, and smart technology/apps wouldn't have nearly the same impact but for games.

So the opinion of the game making and playing community matters. The Valley is where Klout is worth $200m for reasons, but in gamerland that's just a sad sideshow. In gamerland Facebook is just a bit evil. How Oculus plans to square that circle I'd love to know.

Kujel s
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@Tadhg Kelly: I don't want to sound like a nit picker but Satan actually means the opposer, accuser, questioner, obsticle, etc. I think a better term might have been the great deciever which is what I assume what you were going for but misusing words always bothered me and misusing that word espcially bothers me.

Anyway besides that little issue I completely agree with your statements.

Michael Wenk
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This article makes interesting points. I think the long term battle will be over the data. I do think rather than a few servers there will likely be more of a peer to peer thing going. I think that while Facebook and Google would want things centralized, that won't be possible without much infrastructure investment that's not likely to happen. The social graph will still continue to be FB's big asset but it will be more distributed.

"Worse, itís one that relies on what we say, which is very different from what we do."

Not to take it completely out of context, but this statement made me think about whether this move will eventually end up counter productive for the social aspect. Some users of FB gloss over the parts of their lives they don't feel favors their image. If, likely when, we get to the point where we have biotech integrated in the social network, people won't be able to do that. You can argue that social timelines would be more accurate, but I don't think people want them to be that accurate. If you get to that point, I'd figure you'd see more people just opt out, which would lessen facebook's pull.

Greg Scheel
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Facebook, for your face!
Now, Facebook is more in your face than ever before!


Joe McGinn
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great article Raph!

Perhaps one of the most prescient sentences written in years: "Iím a lot more worried about whose EULA is going to govern my life."

Although business as it currently stands, with virtually no regulation over these things, I'd also ask does it make a difference? Is Google any different than Facebook in this regard?

Nooh Ha
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Allan Rowntree
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Interesting in that we get this response to Facebook, when we all have mobile phones/tablets and computers with literally no encryption that can capture our position to within a few meters and monitor all our online actions.

Is the issue really about the privacy of our data or who gets to own the data of our VR dreams.

How does that work with online MMO's, Second Life and Games in general?