You could view the VR industry a bit like the story about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Each year enthusiastic believers who see VR’s potential for collapsing space cry out — “this is the year VR is going to take off.” And, without fail, every year since perhaps the 1980s, the VR revolution never comes to pass.
So it makes sense when Forbes writers looking for clicks take on the role of the non-believing townspeople and hit publish on the latest “VR is Dead” article year after year. It’s a proud tradition with a long history of being correct.
The difference in 2020, however, is that the wolf is announcing very loudly that he is here and he’s ready to eat the boy and everyone else.
“The inflection point was last fall,” Facebook’s Andrew Bosworth, former head of advertising and current head VR, wrote about VR’s adoption curve on Twitter. “And the pandemic has accelerated it.”
Bosworth wrote that on Sunday and on Tuesday Facebook announced its plan to force its log in and identity system on everyone who buys its hardware. The takeaway is that many future Facebook VR and AR features may, at their core, need a Facebook account and, in some cases, that account may need to be backed by your government-issued photo ID in order to use them.
The issue with the way I’ve presented this is two-fold. First, is the wolf in my metaphor “VR” or is it “Facebook”? Second, is comparing either VR or Facebook to the “wolf” fitting? Put another way, is VR supplanting or extending the physical world a bad thing, or is it a good thing? What about if Facebook alone owns, say, 60-90 percent of the virtual real estate upon which the rest of the fabled “metaverse” exists?
All these questions I’ve just asked help explain the discord in the VR community in the aftermath of Facebook’s announcement. It was easy to nod along to the premise, uttered to me by people like Oculus founder Palmer Luckey prior to Facebook’s acquisition, that the good of VR will outweigh the bad. But when there’s a single for-profit corporation with a single white man at the top of it setting the rules for billions of people across the network he runs? Is that prediction still going to come true?
That’s the reality people are trying to come to grips with this week. Many VR developers and early adopters who’ve been on this journey toward the mainstream appeal of VR for longer than Facebook can’t shake the feeling that the suddenness of this merger, and step by step erasure of the Oculus brand, represents the sudden erasure of their effort as well. It’s the feeling that anyone who bought Oculus consumer hardware, trusting Facebook to do the right thing in doing so, just got slapped with the label “Oculus beta tester” as Facebook’s executives feel they’ve found the recipe for success in VR and have now set their targets on the acquisition of everyone else.
Where’s The Competition
Phew. That’s a lot to take in. I could unfold in a future editorial all the reasons why there’s this sinking feeling in the stomachs of so many VR early adopters that they haven’t felt since Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus in 2014. There’s only one that really matters, though, and that’s the lack of competition present in the market today for Facebook’s Quest standalone. I believe there’s the very real possibility that even if Apple enters the market against Facebook they could very likely follow in the footsteps of HTC, Google, and others like Razer (hey, remember that?) in failing to mount any real resistance to Facebook’s long-play in VR.
Ya know when they say if a product is free, you’re the product?
It’s the same when a product isn’t free but the price is just a bit too cheap.
— Shen Ye (@shen) August 19, 2020
There’s absolute magic in the Quest’s systems, like its Guardian room setup, that’s likely to get way more intelligent in the coming months. It needs people detection, seat detection, and even automatic room-setup, and I suspect Facebook’s employees are working on every one of these. What’s more, I am convinced (someone please prove me wrong) there are only a couple companies — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Sony or Amazon — which are likely to have the expert teams in place to keep pace with the rate of software advancement we’re likely to see out of Facebook in the next few years.
While a tech giant like Apple might have the existing partnerships, integration, and scale to give its hardware an edge — which is itself not necessarily a given — there’s still the likelihood that Facebook is ready to take a loss on every headset it sells for the next two decades while matching or exceeding the software experience of any headsets which might ship from Apple or any of its other contemporaries. That’s the advantage Facebook bought by acquiring not just Oculus in 2014, but in taking Michael Abrash from Valve to come and build out teams developing the headset technology Facebook would need in the 2020s and beyond.
One day there may indeed be robust competition for all-in-one standalone VR headsets with robust mixed reality features. Even if it costs hundreds of dollars more, it may be able to win a fair segment of the market. And that feeling of dread so many are feeling this week will subside the moment there’s a decent alternative to the Oculus Quest.
Still, if Facebook is willing to take a loss on hardware, and its share of revenue from running a storefront and taking a cut isn’t enough to keep the lights on, what money is to be made from targeting ads based on the biometric footprint to which you give Facebook access in order to have the “full functionality” of a future Oculus Quest? Where do your own thoughts truly begin when the things you see all around you are only the things Facebook’s software selected for you to see?
I’ll admit to being one of those kids crying wolf over the years. That track record may make it harder for the billions of people who held out this long to understand the experience of us early adopters, and what’s being done with this technology that’s out of their field of view. It’s our job to start that conversation, though, and to keep having it again and again and again.
If you have information to share, please reach out to me on Twitter @hmltn or email me ian at uploadvr dot com.