As announcements go, this one hit everybody way out of left field. From the halls of GTC to the echoing environs of Reddit, when Facebook excitedly announced that it had purchased Oculus VR – the manufacturers behind the much-desired Oculus Rift – the collective Internet was dazzled with a brief moment of total WTF. A few hopefuls tentatively theorised that it might have been an early April Fool's joke.
When it became clear that it wasn't, the collective Internet generally lost its mind. Reddit's comments were... well, Redditish, but they weren't alone. Notch promptly cancelled his plans to bring Minecraft to the Rift. The comments aimed at Parker Luckey have been absolutely vitriolic. And among all the rage, some very genuine concerns and valuable perceptions have just been aired.
First, there's this: If Mark Zuckerberg laboured under the illusion that his company was trusted or seen, in any way, as having its finger on the future of gaming, those illusions should be shattered. Those of us who have been gaming since the 80286 was a hot ticket have generally watched the growth of Flash-based Facebook games with a mixture of scepticism and dismissal. Companies like Zynga may have become rich off Facebook engagement, but the kinds of games on Facebook are exactly what hardcore gamers and the Rift's target audience don't want.
Second, there's the fact that many of us resent – deeply – having been turned into commoditised products. People may use Facebook, but that doesn't automatically mean they like it. Zuckerberg has built a reputation for ignoring privacy, changing features on a whim, and relentlessly searching for more aspects of users' lives that he can crunch into monetised kibble.
The Snowden leaks and blowback over the always-on Kinect 2.0 should have been a sign to Zuckerberg that his company's intrusion into the living room via 3D headsets isn't welcome. There is no way Facebook's entry into this space would be taken as anything but a cynical attempt to grab more user data, because that's the reputation Facebook has built for itself. Meanwhile, Zuck's utterly tone-deaf monologue about buying Oculus Rift because it was the future of social networking couldn't have sounded worse to people who bought into Rift because it was the future of gaming.
"Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever," Zuckerberg said, "and change the way we work, play and communicate."
Newsflash, Zucky. Nobody bought a Rift because they want to be part of your social network. Nobody. And so, when you decide to hype your purchase by talking about features that literally nobody wants or paid for, it's not surprising that people get a little cranky about the whole thing. The solution to this is to reaffirm your fundamental commitment to the original mission the Oculus Rift set out to achieve, talk about your plans for getting that project off the ground, and emphasise that no, you won't be using the Rift to tie people to Facebook, push Facebook, integrate Facebook, or attempting, in any way, to make anyone use Facebook.
The broader context
Consumers are generally pretty wary of having some kind of always-on, corporately-controlled gadget in the living room.
I think the explosion of fury over Oculus is actually more interesting than just some angry nerds because it reveals the true depth of the distrust between the corporations that monetise data and their customer bases. We live in an age when research has proven that most "anonymous" data isn't anonymous at all. We're tracked when we step outside, we're tracked online. Microsoft's Kinect plans for the original Xbox One raised serious privacy issues in the wake of the Snowden revelations precisely because it made people ask if Microsoft was even in control of its own technology. When the NSA is willing to hack private data links between Google and Yahoo servers, there's no guarantee that Facebook's data will stay private, no matter what the company says.
Pushing John Carmack to step up and make some comments about the state of the Oculus Rift would help, because Carmack is a voice that hardcore gamers trust, but I don't think anyone is going to trust this technology in Zuckerberg's hands, no matter what he says. Facebook is a company with the motto "Move fast and break things." It has a history of dictating changes to its users and customers. It doesn't have a stellar reputation for feedback or strong user engagement, unless "We pretend to listen, then do it anyway" actually counts as a feedback strategy.
It may not be the wrong company to launch a peripheral like the Rift, but it sure as hell looks like it. If the company continues to make grand promises of social engagement as opposed to focusing on the game-centric strategy that the Oculus' existing sponsors actually want, the result could be the fastest plunge from hero to unwanted garbage in product history.
As a slight aside, if you want to see where the Rift is currently at, check out our hands-on preview from last week.