Why Did Facebook Buy Oculus Rift?

When Facebook plunked down $19 billion for WhatsApp, the move made perfect sense: after all, the latter is a messaging app with 400 million active users worldwide, which fits in nicely with the social network’s emphasis on connecting people together.

Oculus Rift Virtual Reality GameAnd when Facebook shelled out $1 billion for Instagram, that also seemed like a logical turn of events: people enjoy sharing images with each other, and Instagram offers a sleek (and growing) platform for doing so.

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But Facebook’s latest acquisition, Oculus Rift, doesn’t check any of the traditional boxes on the company’s list of possible acquisition reasons. Why would Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who’s usually laser-focused on his company’s priorities, wake up one morning and decide to spend $2 billion dollars on a virtual-reality company that hasn’t yet launched a public product?

Zuckerberg’s official statement on the matter offers precious few clues: “Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow… Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”

Oculus RiftDoes Oculus Rift’s bulky headset really have the potential to become “the most social platform ever”? At least in the short term, it doesn’t matter; what probably does matter, at least to Zuckerberg, is the ability to deny Google Glass an unimpeded run of the augmented-reality space. With Facebook’s sizable resources behind its development and marketing, Oculus Rift has a chance of seizing a significant niche audience, particularly if the device’s growing developer community pushes out a lot of interesting games and virtual-reality environments over the next several quarters. Yes, Google Glass serves something of a different function—overlaying maps and text over the wearer’s view of the real world, rather than immersing people in a virtual environment—but the potential customer base for both devices is basically the same; everybody who buys an Oculus Rift might prove that much more reluctant to shell out for another piece of hardware to fit on his or her face.

In the longer term, Facebook could attempt to build a virtual reality, one in which users interact with each others’ avatars amidst a digital landscape, rather than via a newsfeed or postings. In theory, that sort of simulacrum presents some prime opportunities for advertising: imagine all the digital billboards and wall-ads that Facebook could sprinkle around a virtual city.

Whatever Facebook decides to do with its new toy, a number of people are already irate over the acquisition. “I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook,” Markus Persson, famed game designer, wrote in a March 25 posting on his personal blog. “Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform. There’s nothing about their history that makes me trust them, and that makes them seem creepy to me.”

Facebook (and Oculus) can only hope that people disagree with that sentiment. But for game developers, the acquisition (and the resources that will presumably come with it) represents a prime opportunity to explore building for Oculus and other virtual-reality platforms, such as Sony’s Project Morpheus.

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Images: Oculus VR