So I finally bought myself a PS4 tonight and shut Twitter off for like 2 hours while I played with it. I come back and surprise, Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion! I gotta’ say, I didn’t see that coming, not by a long shot. Given the tsunami of vitriol that’s followed, neither did pretty much anyone else.
Of course, The Internet will be The Internet and everyone involved knew there would be a mass outrage over this. A lot of it will die down and a lot of people will wake up in a few days, be excited about VR once again and just hope no one notices that they were calling for Palmer Luckey’s head not long prior. Many are upset that Oculus sold at all but the most vocal are upset that they sold to Facebook specifically. I haven’t had a chance to try a Rift yet, didn’t back their Kickstarter and am on record as a doubter of its mainstream potential. Still, the technology seems really cool and I had every intention to buy one if it was as good as the hype. The chances of that have taken a nosedive now and yes, it’s because of Facebook’s involvement. While I do think we need to take a wait-and-see approach with this deal (like we have any other choice), yes there are a lot of reasons to be apprehensive and upset about how Palmer Luckey decided to marry his company to.
He went on Reddit with a PR language laden post tonight defending the sale and talking about how this only means good and virtuous things for Oculus. Of course, he treads around that being given autonomy within Facebook does still come with the caveat that they’re now wholly owned by Facebook and the terms of that autonomy can change at any time. He trumps up Facebook’s apparent openness with regards to technology but avoids directly answering any questions on their dismal privacy and security track records and what concerns we should have with those in regards to the Oculus Rift when it ships. He uses language like “Facebook hasn’t asked us to do anything like that” which is not the same as saying “They will never ask us to do anything like that” or “The deal specifically forbids them from asking us to do anything like that.”
The reality here is simple: Facebook is a publicly traded company and profit is their motivating factor. This isn’t something they’re doing out of charity or because they see potential in a cool technology they want to make a reality. They’re doing it because they see it will make them money. They didn’t buy Instagram or WhatsApp because they liked the product, they bought them for the user bases and social graphs that came with them. Now, would profit be any less a motivating factor if someone else bought Oculus? Certainly not. But any other number of companies out there don’t have a history of being frankly pretty fucking evil and having no respect for their users.
People can (rightfully) rant on all they want about Google and privacy but Google has not been breached multiple times or regularly exposed user data by altering privacy settings without consent or even notification. Facebook’s business is advertising and data mining and I find it very hard to believe they just suddenly decided to get into a completely unrelated hardware business without seeing potential for those sectors within it. Do I know what they see in Oculus for data mining? Nope, I’m not that smart, otherwise I’d be a lot richer. But they see something in it and for those of us who don’t approve of how they do business, it’s a serious concern. Data mining in and of itself isn’t a bad thing if the company is providing a valuable, useful and secure service in exchange for it. People can argue if Facebook really provides any of those things but on the third one, I think there is more agreement that they’re pretty lousy at it.
There have already been statements made from Oculus that the Facebook deal allows them to do things like sell the retail hardware at cost, making it much easier to get it to mainstream consumers. Already, unpaid cheerleader “journalists” like Ben Kuchera have come out screaming about how great this is. Yet no one stops to think about what the price of that might be. Facebook isn’t a charity and their shareholders won’t stand for them giving something away that can be a profit center. Selling the Rift at cost is being made up for elsewhere and you’re unbelievably naive if you think it isn’t. Not knowing what that is should raise red flags. Obviously, this deal is so new that we don’t know what the long-term plans are but there are few companies I would trust less than Facebook to be doing this in an honest an open way.
Rumour is that people are abandoning Facebook in droves so perhaps this is just an honest attempt by them to diversify and if so, that’s great. Nothing would make me happier than to find out they truly just want to help VR become the next big thing and “change the world” the way so many claim it will. But they also now own a company with the means to capture and monetise unprecedented amounts of unique data about us, not to mention a lot of the key patents that go along with that. If you’re someone who knows anything about Facebook or how they view their users and their privacy, that should concern you. All we can do is see where it leads and that’s what I intend to do. I haven’t written off Oculus or the Rift at all, it’s just going to take a lot more than just a cool idea to get me on board now. Facebook is not a virtuous company and VR needs virtuous people behind it to see its full potential.
I tell you what though, if Sony are smart at all, they’ll announce tomorrow that Project Morpheus is going to be an open platform that will support anything, not just the PS4. They would have a massive new audience in the blink of an eye.