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This post by Peter Berkman gets closest to the meat of our collective concerns over the Oculus sale to Facebook. John Carmack even responded in the comments, while Palmer took to reddit. Raph Koster and Blair McIntyre do pretty good analyses in their own rights, putting the pieces together.
Disclaimer: I know many of the people mentioned here and consider them friends. I’m sticking to only what is publicly revealed information. And I am of course happy for these individuals who are getting to work on dream projects and making lots of money as a side benefit.
Here are some collected facts that are out in the open:
1. Industry Legends John Carmack and Michael Abrash have each talked publicly about wanting to build the Metaverse (of Snow Crash fame). I totally get what’s in this deal for them: build it with the right tech, the right people and at Facebook scale. Got to love the opportunity to realize that dream.
2. Cory Ondrejka (kick-ass VP of Mobile at Facebook) was formerly CTO of LindenLab/Second Life. He’s built a slightly less scalable version of the Metaverse already. Notice a “Mark, Chris and Cory” named in Palmer’s blog post. I have no doubt they’re completely sincere about wanting to see VR succeed in its own right.
3. Peter is also right in assuming that Oculus will add real gaze tracking. Palmer hints (skip to just before 19:00) about it here. Oculus is not alone, I expect. While there are many patents (of various quality) on this, there are still many viable ways to determine a user’s gaze, and many reasons to do so. Facebook has even more on its wishlist, I bet, beyond the basics of providing better visuals or more Natural UI.
4. Companies like Tobii make their living today by (effectively) enabling mind-reading via a user’s gaze. Your supermarket shelves were probably arranged with this kind of tech strapped to willing users. Your favorite website’s layout was probably tested using this tech in a lab. Just imagine the power of knowing what everyone is looking at and why, of being able to read subtle emotion in the face, including those micro-expressions that always reveal the truth.
5. Blair is also right that Zuckerberg’s AR long-term vision isn’t a typo. For all the arguments about VR vs. AR vs. camera-based vs. see-through being better for this or that, the bottom line is that VR sucks for mobile. That’s based purely on the old “wall meets face” principle, if not the geek factor of walking around talking to people with a brick over your eyes.
Facebook needs to win on mobile. Yes, it’ll take a few years just to get consumer-friendly seated VR right. But when Oculus eventually gets their glasses down to sunglass size and adds forward-facing cameras that mix real and virtual, then watch out[side]. Here’s the key part of Zuckerberg’s quote again:
But this is just the start. After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside 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.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more.
One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people. [emphasis mine]
6. I’ve heard Oculus folks also talk about telepresence as one of the killer apps for VR too, esp. when one can solve the “eye gaze” problem. You’ve probably experienced that in crappy modern video chat, which is generally how I’d imagine women feel when you stare at their chests. Interestingly, Cory’s old boss from Linden, Philip Rosedale, has announced he’s working on the eye gaze problem in his new startup too, and using some cool software called FaceShift to get a jump on the harder problems there.
[For full disclosure, I did some work on avatar-based telepresence as well, but I wasn't entirely satisfied with the result. FWIW, I found a better approach, which works with no hardware sitting on your face.]
7. Finally, Facebook makes its money by selling its users. Let’s not be coy. It’s a lot of money and a lot of users. To be fair, is it really any worse than how NBC offers up its users to advertisers (since before I was born)? Well, no and yes. It’s the same “ad, ad” world as before. We learn by age four to distrust the loud man on the TV. But the key difference is that NBC can’t see you, can’t really know your thoughts, except via gross statistics (think Neilsen ratings). Facebook really wants to know you, individually, and forever.
Now, companies like Facebook and Google provide immensely desirable services for free too, more so than NBC IMO. The problem lies in the concept of “informed consent.” Both tech companies still suck at the human stuff IMO, esp. in terms of giving users clear information up front to make that decision wisely, and then giving full control of their data after. It’s still mostly one-sided today, and it has to change.
Ideally, they’d start to emulate companies who’ve adopted an obsessive customer focus. It’s not about what people will tolerate, but what they really need. Earning our trust can’t be an afterthought or a win by attrition.
[for a positive comparison, TV's "Neilsen families" give truly informed consent and the company promises not to market to them as well.]
So we come back to Peter’s insightful post. The problem with the Oculus sale is not that we all supported Palmer’s fortuitous kickstarter and got no share of the spoils. I got the product I ordered, still sitting in its box, alas. It’s not that he and Brendan Iribe “sold out” the indie gaming dream for big bucks. There are plenty of reasons to seek this level of protection and financial support in the light of Sony (and others) gearing up for a big fight. Gamers should be happy to have more viable options to choose from at the lowest prices.
Hell, I joined the so-called “evil empire” in 2008 to try to use their massive scale to do some good in the world, so who am I to judge? (jury is still out on my contributions, fwiw)
No. The heart of the problem is that VR is the most powerful means ever invented to pipe external ideas into your internal world. It’s pushing remote-controlled information almost directly into your brain via every sense possible. Consider that people believe a lot of crap they can’t even see. You’ll believe this crap on so many levels. That’s why it’s called virtual reality, ok? It’s as close to real as it gets, while still being entirely artificial.
The Facebook purchase highlights the reverse of that flow as well, reminding us that VR may become one of the best ways to pipe your internal world out — via data mining, classification and onto untold dissemination. That’s actually one of the reasons I got into the field, 20 years ago: to more easily tell stories that were rattling around my brain that would have taken millions of dollars and hundreds of people to produce as movies or games. But it has a dark side too, like when the information is sucked out of us without our informed consent or control.
Just think what the headlines would have said last week if Facebook had instead bought a brain-sensing startup like Emotiv, or invested in fMRI brain scanning tech to extract your thoughts. See what I’m talking about? VR doesn’t work quite the same way as those, but it gets to the same place in the end. The protective walls between you and the world come down in favor of more bandwidth in and out.
So closing that loop, even crafting individually designated virtual worlds using all of your private information, Facebook will own the most potent means available, short of mind-control drugs, to read and write to your private inner world, your thoughts, your actions, your dreams. It can free you, or it can enslave you.
What they do with it is entirely up to them (plus certain market and “other” forces). And if that doesn’t scare you, at least a little, then you may already be sold.
Most head mounted VR gear brings me back to my teenage years, where my orthodontist tried to make me wear a night brace to straighten my teeth.
It works while you sleep, he said.
You try sleeping with your head in a vice, I said.
He didn’t care. He got paid $40/month regardless of how long it took. Needless to say, I soon got a new orthodontist. And I’ve kept trying on various VR gear too.
I originally favored the CAVE projection kind of display and built a few variations of my own, including a six-sided one at Disney. The main benefit is zero latency (ignoring stereo parallax changes) — in other words, the image is already there when you turn your head. No blurriness. The main downside, of course, is who has room or money for an 8′ cube in their living room. Not practical until we get digital wallpaper or big flexible roll-up screens.
But even still, I happily bought into the Oculus Rift’s kickstarter, eager to try again. I love seeing people so enthusiastic about this stuff, especially new blood.
Though I’ve personally used the Rift for many minutes at a time, my own purchased dev kit is still sitting in its box, alas, waiting for me to find time to build something useful. The head-tracking latency was actually very good, but the original display felt much like the world was made of LiteBrite. If you’ve never tried it, here’s a good oculus rift simulator to try.
I just pre-ordered the 2nd gen dev kit too, which fixes much of the resolution issue, and I’m sure comes in an even nicer box.
I’m hopeful that Carmack can solve some of the rendering latency issues that fast OLED displays alone can’t. I did some research in this area too, fwiw. There’s a lot that can still be done to wring the delays out of various pipelines.
Some friends and I also got to try out the new Sony Morpheus HMD at GDC this week. We had to get in line the moment the expo doors opened, just to get a ticket to stand in line to wait to try. But it was worth it, I keep telling myself.
The resolution was impressive. The persistence of their LCD displays was not as good as the Rift’s. Now, I can’t be sure what they’re using inside, but I would have thought they’d throw some 4k SXRD panels in there, just like they use in their nicest projectors.
I thought those were akin to DLP in terms of super-fast switching time, but I’m not so sure anymore. Maybe there isn’t room for front-reflection in the optical path. I can say that the LCD-like images we saw seemed to be over-driven and washed out a bit, mostly suffering from slow switching times. Brightness was great, but black blacks were in short supply.
In any event, no one got nauseated, which is a small victory for those of us who can’t watch the Blair Witch Project without dramamine. The Rift also does well on that front. But in both cases, using a simple laptop trackpad or arrow keys to navigate puts me back on the vomit comet.
A nice omni-directional treadmill might do the trick. Someone had one of those on display too, but I didn’t get to try it — seems to need special slippery shoes. But if we’re going through the trouble of a 4′ treadmill, why not just go back to using CAVEs? If it’s just a matter of integrating your furniture, my friends in MSR solved that nicely.
For what it’s worth, I still have my money on real see-through AR displays as the ultimate winner. Let me walk in the real world, augmented with new content. Yes, indeed.
This could be catastrophic to companies like Unity3D, who solve cross-platform 3D by making you work in their time-tested little sandbox, except for the poor level of support WebGL has on mobile. That’s the last remaining bottleneck to real Web 3D.
Apple only officially supports WebGL inside iAds, proving it’s not a technical problem at least. Android support is variable, but within reach. These conditions are mostly IMO functions of the current lucrative business model for apps, not any lingering hardware or security limits. Consider: if mobile browsers improve, then cool 3D apps are once again free, unchained by “app” and “play” stores and their up to 30% markups.
On the other hand, the web is what built the digital economy that’s fueled mobile growth. Mobile phones have gone back to the pre-browser era to make some money, but it’s inevitable that we’ll all return to a more open ecosystem, esp. on Android. Closed ecosystems like AOL only lasted until people found the door.
Nicely done, Vlad, Tony, Ken, and more.
Here’s fun Verge article from last spring that mentioned me nicely. I don’t seek out much press, but it’s nice to get a good review.
If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch me battle the stage lights below.
In an inspirational speech, Avi Bar-Zeev of Syntertainment, a startup in stealth mode, suggests that [Augmented Reality] could change the world.
“Every game-changing technology can be recast as a human superpower,” he suggests, likening the television to primitive clairvoyance, the telephone to telepathy, and the wheel to telekinesis. “If I decide I want that rock to move, I have the power to make it move with much less effort,” he says. But if you could reshape your reality at will, could “teleport” elsewhere, he asks, what would it mean to be in jail? Bar-Zeev also points out that the difference between augmented reality and virtual reality is purely semantic if you imagine screens built into contact lenses. “What’s the difference between AR and VR? Open and close your eyes. That’s it.”
It’s not the $19B price tag of Facebook’s WhatsApp acquisition that’s most amazing to me. That’s just math (lots of math). More users * more engagement * a wealthy/desperate suitor = bigger deals.
It’s not most amazing to me that the deal works out to over $250M per employee, if evenly split. For comparison, Google seems to be worth about $8.5M per employee, last I checked. Apple reportedly pulls in a whopping $2.3M yearly per employee in revenues alone. (average Apple employees, how much of that do you get paid again?).
WhatsApp just did more and faster with fewer people. That’s what makes a great team. I’m sure everyone was amazing. Dysfunctional teams or people barely earn back their salaries, if they survive at all.
The motivation for the deal is not amazing at all, since Facebook desperately needs to connect the very people who don’t need Facebook to connect, i.e., the people you see every day. It seemed almost inevitable, given the trends.
No. What is most amazing to me is the powerful principle behind this simple note at right — one of the core principles that apparently made WhatsApp so popular with hundreds of millions of users. I found this via the Sequoia blog post about the sale, and I honestly had no idea.
Jan keeps a note from Brian taped to his desk that reads “No Ads! No Games! No Gimmicks!” It serves as a daily reminder of their commitment to stay focused on building a pure messaging experience.
It’s most amazing to me, and most inspiring, because there are so many professional CEOs and advisors out there who try to convince their startups that they need to collect and hoard as much user data as possible, then sell it surreptitiously, while also pushing ads and wringing every last monetizable cent with games and gimmics to keep people addicted and virally engaged.
Those same fine folks somehow duck out (or get fired) when the users finally complain, defect and disappear. And they apparently never learn from their mistakes. But they do come back, with the same tired story again and again.
WhatsApp proved them wrong and proved it 19 billion times over.
Build value for users. Give them what they want and need, every day. That’s the recipe for success. This kind of success is something I can truly appreciate and admire.
P.S. I’d like to think that this is the real reason Facebook bought them, given FB’s reliance on those same tired ads, games, etc… Maybe it wasn’t for more European and emerging market penetration. Maybe it wasn’t merely to disarm a growing competitor. Maybe it’s for Facebook to become more like them? Maybe that’s why they put Jan on the board. If so, good for them.
I’ve heard that credit card companies know when you’re cheating or about to get divorced. I’d imagine things like flowers, gifts and hotels would be a tip off, but general expenses probably approach double once a couple is separated.
This data about facebook posts makes perfect sense too. People using FB will post more flirtatiously until the relationship starts. But after, why post so much? Even in real life, it’s rare for couples to make strong public displays of affection once they’re together. If they do, it may come more from insecurity about the relationship, or insensitivity to others’ feelings, than from some unparalleled eternal flame.
This highlights one of Facebook’s core challenges — how to capture sentiments shared between people who spend a lot of time together.
Big Congrats to the teams in Bellevue, Sunnyvale, Boulder, Graz and more.
What you’re seeing here is the product of 10 years of effort, in many ways, and represents a turnaround and partial recovery from one of Ballmer’s biggest mistakes. He famously handed most of the company’s mapping business to Nokia, losing many smart minds and multiple years of effort in the process.
But a core group remained, and with the company’s renewed support were able to build this as a first step to catching up. And it’s a very admirable step. Nice work!