If you had to choose a single person to represent unimpeachable integrity in the world of indie gaming, you would not go astray in picking Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of “Minecraft.” So when Notch responded with a roar of displeasure to Tuesday’s news that the virtual reality company Oculus Rift had sold itself to Facebook for a tidy 2 billion it is not surprising that the Reddit forum devoted to Oculus Rift applauded wildly.
One sentence echoed with particular resonance:
“And I did not chip in ten grand to seed a first investment round to build value for a Facebook acquisition.”
Judging from the outpouring on Reddit, a not insignificant number of people who invested their hopes and dreams and Kickstarter crowd-funding dollars in Oculus Rift feel betrayed, shocked and appalled — or, as one Redditor exclaimed “straight fucked.”
“Thanks for the money morons, we’re selling out to The Man.”
It’s always sad when your favorite punk band gets a major label record deal and suddenly turns around and releases a pop ballad. For understandable reasons, the VR fans who plunked down their own cash to get Oculus Rift off the ground felt a sense of ownership and connection to the company. No one who isn’t employed by Mark Zuckerberg feels that way about Facebook. There’s a very clear warning here: Anyone who is under the impression that contributing to a crowd-funding campaign means having a meaningful say or a stake in the future of your chosen start-up is mistaken.
Of course, that should have been clear to everyone remotely interested in Oculus Rift at least as far back as last December, when the venture capital firm Andreeseen-Horowitz led a $75 million investment round in Oculus Rift. Once the VCs got their hooks into the company, an exit event denouement like Tuesday’s was all but inevitable. (Interestingly, Andreessen serves on the board of Facebook, but says he “recused” himself from Oculus Rift-Facebook negotiations. Riiiiiiight. If anybody is the real winner from this deal, it’s Andreessen-Horowitz, which just flipped its December investment into a hefty chunk of Facebook stock.)
But there is also a legitimately interesting cultural story here. Dreams of virtual reality hold special significance in the deep geek heart of the Internet. The fulfillment of true escape from our earthly ties (otherwise known as keyboards, monitors, mice and smartphones) has bewitched generations of science fiction fans and computer nerds. Oculus Rift tapped that vein with high-grade heroin. Oculus Rift promised, as Dean Putney wrote at Boing Boing, to make it possible “to really feel like you had escaped our shared reality into another.”
The poetry written about its promise flowed deep and strong. Rabid fans clamored to throw their support and money at the project. They crowded around booths at trade shows to catch a glimpse, and built complicated software programs for the new platform– sometimes without even being able to try it out themselves. Suddenly, users were booting up and creating any virtual world they wanted, and that power made them think they might be able to influence the real world a bit. Hopes were high! Oculus seemed untouchable; the white knight of VR.
Facebook crushes that dream with an endless stream of targeted advertisements, privacy encroachments and what, for better or worse, we must call real reality. There’s no escaping the mundane disappointments of this world when Facebook owns the virtual world. The virtual realities envisioned by William Gibson and Neal Stephenson were cool. Mark Zuckerberg is not cool.
The irony, as clearer heads on Reddit were beginning to realize as the initial clamor began to subside, is that Facebook’s purchase of Oculus Rift is the most obvious sign yet from the market that virtual reality technology will one day be ready for prime time. And Facebook Rift will surely have its indie competitors. There will be plenty of VR frontiers for the geeks to escape to. The “Minecraft” version of VR is just as inevitable as the Facebook mainstreaming of VR.
It’s just too bad that there’s no way to tell, when you plunk down some cash via Kickstarter, which way it’s all going to go. But every generation has to learn that fact, sooner or later.