The scope of digital entertainment is rapidly changing in ways never before seen. Just 15 years ago, the world was getting used to the idea of DVDs. Now, tablets are able to store dozens of episodes of a TV show – even more, perhaps – and battery power can sustain a flight across the Pacific.
So it is in the interactive entertainment industry as well. Two years ago, a company called Oculus debuted a crowdfunding campaign in order to help popularise its virtual reality technology. It was incredibly successful, winning $2.5 million – and it only wanted $250,000.
Since then the business has received funding in two rounds, one $16 million push and another $75 million towards the end of last year.
And yesterday, Facebook bought Oculus for $US2 billion.
Facebook’s immediate motivations are clear, as Mark Zuckerberg said in his announcement blog post – he wants to use the virtual reality platform to make the world a more connected place. (The company used similar language when investing in a company recently which makes drones).
Zuckerberg also answered the other, more pressing question regarding the Facebook takeover – what does the social networking company want in an entertainment business like Oculus?
“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.”
And so there you have it. The concept of the virtual reality product in Oculus goes far beyond a videogame, and instead is a way for users to have experiences they never normally would otherwise.
(This has been true for a while. When I tried the Oculus Rift last year, one of the demo software programs made the viewer feel as if they were in a cinema – the programmer at the time said the tech could be used for entertainment on long flights, for instance.)
But while the gaming community is currently concerned about the company’s takeover, for Facebook this acquisition has its own set of concerns. $US2 billion is a significant amount of money for a platform which hasn’t reached mainstream availability yet, or even mainstream recognition.
This is far from an acquisition like WhatsApp, which already had an inbuilt audience. Facebook is making a significant bet on what it believes the future of technology will be – and it’s doing so slightly blind.
But not totally blind, either. Sony debuted its own virtual reality headset at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco last week, and other gaming companies have been working on their own versions since the Oculus debuted in 2012.
The possibility in the Oculus Rift, then, is not just in the videogame space but as a new portal for entertainment. Watching concerts, films and television with a new perspective will give rise to the possibility of content tailored for virtual reality itself – new possibilities for personalisation and customisation are easy to fathom.
(The technology has already been adopted by the US Navy for testing.)
Facebook is clearly focused on the advertising potential in such a medium, but the real possibilities right now are in the types of content which can be made for such a device. A device so immersive as the Oculus Rift will make the consumer feel as they though are actually in and a part of whatever they’re watching – which will have drastic ramifications for the content created for that device.
Although it’s impossible to see what the Oculus Rift is really like without strapping one on yourself, this video gives a nice introduction to the concept. And with a $US2 billion price tag, it’s easy to suggest this is a concept coming to the mainstream sooner rather than later. The only question remains what type of content will be built for a mainstream audience on such a device, and who will be the forces driving both its creation and inevitable monetisation.