Facebook is, by far, the largest social media platform on Earth. Nearly 2 billion people use it — just over 25% of the planet’s population.
But the company’s vision for the future goes beyond baby photos and shareable headlines: The $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR in 2014 was a strong indication of what’s next for Facebook.
Indeed, Zuckerberg and company see virtual reality as an integral part of Facebook’s future. And that future is off to a rocky start.
Weak sales of the company’s first VR headset, the Oculus Rift, are just the beginning. Two months after Facebook purchased Oculus VR, Facebook was sued for $2 billion. The company that sued, Zenimax Media, claimed that a former employee-turned-Oculus CTO took trade secrets with him. Moreover, the suit claimed that those trade secrets were integral to the Oculus Rift headset.
A classic he said/she said litany of statements flowed from both companies, and a two-week jury trial concluded earlier this month. Zuck himself even appeared in court for questioning. The result? Facebook is paying Zenimax $500 million, but no one’s to blame.
Here’s what’s going on.
August 2013: Oculus VR, a startup working on a virtual reality headset called the Rift, hires “Doom” creator John Carmack of id Software as its chief technology officer.
From the very first days of the Oculus Rift — when it was little more than snowboard goggles, duct tape, and wires — legendary programmer John Carmack was involved. When the Rift was first demonstrated for press, at E3 in 2012 (an annual video game industry trade show), it was demonstrated by John Carmack.
Carmack showed off a version of “Doom 3,” running in the Oculus Rift headset. It would be another year before he officially resigned from id Software, which he co-founded, to become the CTO of Oculus VR.
Of note: id Software was founded in 1991, and then sold to Zenimax Media in 2009.
Carmack got the prototype headset from Palmer Luckey, the impossibly young face of the Oculus Rift. He was repeatedly held up as the genius inventor behind the headset.
So the story goes: Palmer Luckey was working on the Oculus Rift headset’s earliest prototypes from his parents’ house. Luckey was a member of several forums dedicated to the world of 3D and, eventually, virtual reality. He was a part of the “mod” community, which is notorious for taking existing hardware and modifying it into something new — a portable Xbox 360, or a GameBoy that plays Super Nintendo games, for instance.
On the journey from ski-goggle prototype to something sellable, Carmack — an idol of Luckey’s and, apparently, a member of the same VR forum — got in touch and asked to be sent a prototype. Wired catalogued the exchange in a 2014 story timed to publish soon after the Facebook acquisition:
“Carmack private-messaged him. Would Palmer consider sending him a loaner unit? Palmer, who idolized Carmack, shipped it off to Texas immediately — ‘no NDAs, no signing anything,’ Carmack says. ‘It was one of two prototypes that he had.’
Carmack got to work on the machine, hot-gluing a motion sensor to it and duct-taping on a ski-goggle strap. But his greatest contribution came in the code he wrote for it. The Rift’s biggest selling point was its 90-degree field of view, which Luckey accomplished by slapping a cheap magnifying lens on the display. The problem was, that lens distorted the image underneath, making it warped and uneven. So Carmack coded a version of ‘Doom 3’ that pre-distorted the image, counteracting the effects of the magnifying lens and making the picture appear correct to the viewer. The result was a completely immersive gaming experience, the kind that would otherwise require $10,000 in high-end optics.”
March 2014: Facebook buys Oculus VR
In March 2014, Facebook announced the acquisition of Oculus VR — an independent startup. Unlike Instagram or Whatsapp, it was less obvious why Facebook would buy a fledgling startup that was, at the time, creating the first major VR headset since the technology faded from popularity in the mid-’90s.
Zuckerberg justified the purchase as such:
“History suggests that there will be more platforms to come. Today’s acquisition is a long-term bet on the future of computing.”
In Zuckerberg’s eyes, the folks at Oculus VR were creating “the future,” and he wanted Facebook to be integral in building that vision of the future.