More Thoughts On The Rift…

oculusrift

Yup, ANOTHER blog post. Wow, this thing is the gift that keeps on giving…

I think people might have missed the real crux of the announcement.

The Oculus Rift acquisition is big; but it’s by no means the endgame for Facebook. Sure, it proclaims it wants its own proprietary hardware – and to have a platform of its very own to do with as they please. That’s not a bad aim, actually; Facebook has bought something that it intends to use in that long-term view of entering the market with its own custom firmware.

However, any suggestions that this will affect the shape or size of the Oculus Rift (or whatever it ends up rebranded as) are perhaps a little off the mark; truth is, Facebook are talking up not just games, but other functions and features. It’s going to need a decent CPU, and a GPU that will deliver some performance for its games and to enhance its display. Then it’s going to obviously need all the other stuff that comes with it; heatsinks, cooling fans, wiring, chipboards and so on. If you think that Facebook or the Oculus people intend to squeeze all that into a headset – which will sit on your face, pushing down into your neck and shoulders for the most part – then I’d suggest you find another thought to latch onto. Weight is a killer in this instance.

So, most of this can’t be in-built to the Rift; current limitations apply. That means that Facebook will have to consider an external piece of hardware that performs these functions; a piece of hardware that will run its firmware, it’s software and any games that the user deigns to want to use on it.

In a sense, Facebook isn’t simply entering the VR race here – it’s entering the games console race.

Now, there are two ways this could go; the first one I’d probably discount fairly quickly, because it applies to a more mobile setup – a hybrid of a console and Google Glass, as it were. There are of course problems with this – the first is the hardware would also have to be the controller, and therefore that’s a whole new design phase just begging to be waded through. Then you’d have to consider it’s competition; which would be not the Vita, but the Nintendo 3DS – already a market phenomenon on its own, it’s had enough time to firmly entrench itself right into the market and once again assert dominance over the handheld space. Finally, you’d have to consider the headset; VR isn’t AR – VR is expected to immerse you into a world, after all, and that doesn’t sound like it lends itself terribly well to a mobile design. It’s hard to imagine it being used on a train, for example; sensory deprivation? Oh no, we just missed our stop fifteen minutes ago! As for walking around a park… hmm. I doubt it.

So, with that silly notion dismissed, we’re left with the more likely concept of a home platform.

This is a different ballgame, because the market has three platforms already; well, four if you count the Ouya (who still counts the Ouya?). The market is, on the one hand, fairly new. It would probably be early enough to at least attempt to try and muscle in, see if there is any real space to be had; but if the Rift and the Facebook machine take another year to eighteen months to come to light, it may be too late to shake off any of the main competitors in earnest; Nintendo has its own software and a strong indie lineup; Sony has predominant third party support and Microsoft has some pretty big licenses all of its own to be getting on the market. By the time the Rift Machine hits home, all three consoles will probably be delivering their more meaty software hits; Zelda, Uncharted, Halo. Going up against such names would be pretty silly; it would take a pretty incredible amount of confidence to take on a market being peppered with some of the biggest first-party exclusives going.

I don’t think for a second that Facebook, or the Rift people, have any hardware in mind yet. Which means that the idea of hitting the market to compete with the Sony Morpheus isn’t going to work; there’s far too much R&D still to be done. Not only does Facebook need to work on good firmware, it also needs to design and construct a console, settling on specifications and form, and to top all that off – it will need to construct a controller as well (and in a market with the Wii U Gamepad, the Sony DualShock 4 and the XBox One Controller, I’d say it’s going to be near-impossible to find improvements on already very well researched and built products…). Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo spend most of a games generation getting these designs together for the next one; seven or eight years of constant design tweaks and workmanship. With the best will in the world, Facebook isn’t going to be able to rush something out in eighteen months. That would be a financial nightmare, not to mention a technical mountain to climb – and again, at a point where the market is already entrenched and delivering its bigger hitters in terms of software, there’d be very little guarantee of any success for that investment.

On the other hand, however, Facebook might be in one of the best positions to truly upend the market.

Now; the last generation – Gen7 – lasted 2005-2012, which is a good seven years. Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo will all have built their new consoles – the Wii U, the XBox One and the PlayStation 4 – with a long-term goal in mind, possibly even lasting until 2020. They have done this to cover building a market, to cover building a userbase, getting software out there and recouping as much money from their hardware and software as is possible. It’s the sensible, logical way to do things.

Facebook, however, obviously aims to drop into the hardware race. If it waits around until, say, 2016 or 2017 – gives itself some time to really build something, it could do something very dangerous to the market; it could, possibly, force a generational jump early.

Now, no doubt Nintendo and Microsoft probably won’t have as much of an issue with this – they misjudged things a little, and Sony has kind of run off in the popularity stakes right now (although it’s hardly good news for either). Sony, on the other hand, has thrown more or less everything it has at the PlayStation 4. Sony’s financials are not too rosy; they’ll make another profit this year but only by selling off more physical real-estate, which is fine for a short-term cash boost but it hides the reality that it’s hardware divisions have been suffering greatly. Sony more than anyone right now will be hoping that Facebook doesn’t try to play dirty; not just that it’s going to have a rival product (The Morpheus will be designed to run with the PlayStation 4, I believe), but simply because it’s banking a lot on getting the most from this hardware in the long term. A threat like Facebook would perhaps even force them to begin R&D on a new console in earnest, and earlier than they’d prefer; and that’s money Sony don’t really have in reserve right now.

Of course, that’s only a possibility. It could be that Facebook have a very different idea for the hardware; and therefore the gaming market may not be the main focus (which would be a bit silly, considering the goodwill the Oculus Rift has generated, but still…). But Facebook are clearly looking to expand out of just being Facebook; they want more, they want to be seen to be more, to be striving for more. The acquisition of the Rift is a big part of this drive to be seen to be doing more – to have more strings to its bow. But it’s still a huge risk; Facebook don’t have a good track record with firmware. They don’t have a good track record – or any track record, I think – in hardware design. And they certainly don’t have much of a track record when it comes to games; you could say many bridges have been burned, and unless Facebook is ready to grovel in some cases, I think the smouldering remains of those bridges will have to serve as an eternal reminder of past failings.

I do believe though, the Rift is only one part of a greater whole; Facebook is going to have to surprise us down the road with a hardware platform to run with the Oculus Rift. Everything Facebook has said tells me that they aren’t considering doing this by halves – the $2 billion buyout of the Oculus Rift all but demonstrates that. They aren’t messing about; and they certainly aren’t afraid of spending the money. Whether it all works out down the road… well… who knows?

However, if Facebook’s plan is to go this road; may I humbly suggest to Mark Zuckerberg that at this point, you might want to consider a company rebrand. A “Facebook Console” isn’t going to work. Facebook can be a PART of that console; the firmware you guys obviously will be developing from now will likely have social media very much in mind. But as a product? The Facebook Rift? Hmm. I don’t think it’ll work out. Maybe you could even take on the Oculus moniker. Or not. With the whole data collection thing in the last year or two, one assumes you probably don’t want a big eye as your company logo. You know. Just sayin’.

Either way, I think you guys are up to something delightfully devious here. And I can’t wait to see what it is you naughty little boys and girls have in store. Whether it’s the future or not is sort of not the point right now; there’s the potential to really jam a spanner in the console market. And I have to admit it – I think it’s time someone did. At least to shock some urgency into it. To get them to pay a little more attention. To get them perhaps even moving to better business models, sooner than anticipated. The status quo is kind of nice; but it doesn’t expedite change in quite the same way a good threat does.

Sure, there’s certainly plenty to be concerned about; a company with no real serious hardware or firmware history (at least nothing much successful!) is a pretty high-risk entrant into the serious games market. But hey, everyone started somewhere. Nintendo was software only until it started with the NES. Sony got into consoles after a deal with Nintendo fell through. Microsoft entered by stepping over the still-fairly-warm corpse of the Sega Dreamcast; a machine it also had a small hand in bringing to market. All three began somewhere; and it’s been quite a while since a credible new entrant tried to shake the boat to see if the big three right now are paying attention. Likewise, Facebook will also really have to consider what it wants to deliver hardware wise, and how it plans to operate its firmware – the abysmal PR flailing and failing of the XBox One digital right and privacy thing is still very much fresh in many minds. Facebook will need to keep that in mind. It can’t afford to repeat that mistake.

Facebook won’t know unless it tries, and neither will we. It may be a risky venture – but even if Facebook fails, the positives that could come from it would certainly end up with it being seen in a more favourable light.

It’s possible. After all the smack talk this week, I thought at the very least, someone should toss Facebook and Oculus a bone…

Heck knows they need it.

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