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Musings on the Oculus Sale

Yes, gamers are upset about the sale of Oculus to Facebook. But the long-term arc of Oculus isn't aiming at games. And the rendering tech was never going to be where the action really was.

Raph Koster, Blogger

March 26, 2014

8 Min Read

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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