More Thoughts on Facebook/Oculus

In yesterday’s post on the Oculus acquisition (link), I focused on the idea that Facebook sees virtual reality as the future of social networking. I was skeptical of the Oculus deal because I see VR as a more fundamental change with much broader implications to the industry.

There is an alternate view, as a commenter on the post pointed out. Let’s assume for a minute that Mark Zuckerberg actually does understand the potential for VR to be far more than a communication technology. As I wrote last year (link), I think 3D displays combined with 3D printing and gesture interfaces can be the foundation of sensory computing, the next big computing revolution as important as the graphical interface revolution of the 1980s. Maybe Mark sees that, and the deal is really about him buying Oculus to remake computing, with Facebook just the vehicle he used to make the deal.

If so, bravo.

The companies that should be driving this new revolution are Microsoft and Apple, but computing incumbents are usually too wrapped up in their existing businesses to spot the next generation. Maybe it takes a relative outsider like Mark to see the potential. And in this case, it’s an outsider with oodles of money. Which is good news, because the new world of sensory computing will need a lot of investment to get it started.

When building a computing platform business, you have to hit a very careful balance between creating infrastructure that no one else can build, and leaving opportunity on the table so that others will invest. A successful computing platform is not a singular entity; it’s an ecosystem that wraps the platform vendor, developers, partners, and users into a network in which everyone invests and everyone benefits from the synergy between the parts.

In this world, the platform vendor is a bit like the conductor of an orchestra. You don’t play the instruments yourself; you make sure they all come together to make beautiful music.

To make sensory computing happen, Oculus will need to focus on four areas: technology standards, interface, economic model, and management.

Technology standards. Someone needs to define how the apps, software extensions, and accessories in the sensory computing world will communicate with each other. For example, how does a gesture recognition tool like Leap Motion communicate with the Oculus hardware and with applications built for it? Oculus needs to take the responsibility for creating the communication standards and APIs, and needs to write the sample code that will make it easy for developers to integrate them. This can’t be left to committees or the open source crowd. Committees are too slow, and open source is too chaotic.

Oculus also needs to write drivers. Lots and lots of drivers, to integrate its systems with the rest of the computing world. Most engineers hate writing drivers; they are boring and difficult and no one ever comes up to you and says, “killer keyboard driver, dude.” As a result platform vendors usually try to leave that detail to the open source community. But that doesn’t work, because volunteer open source developers are even less likely to do unsexy work. Building a platform without drivers is like building a city without sewer pipes. Mark, this is where your money will come in handy. Hire a bunch of good driver developers and put them to work interfacing Oculus with everything.

Some of the first drivers you need are 3D printer drivers. Make it easy for people to create in 3D and bring their creations into the real world.

Interface. Imagine the Mac without menus and windows and icons. A new computing paradigm needs new interface standards: how do we grab objects in a virtual world, how do we control the device, how do we move ourselves around, and how do we do all of that without inducing motion sickness (one of the biggest complaints from early users of the Oculus Rift hardware)? There’s some very subtle and challenging work to be done here. Oculus and its software partners have made a good start in the area of gaming (for example, how do you separate where you’re looking from where you’re shooting from where you want to move?) That same level of thinking needs to go into all aspects of sensory computing.

Economic model. The platform vendor needs to make sure that the people creating accessories and apps for the new platform have a reasonable chance to make money. The platform does not need to guarantee profit for everyone, but the good apps and accessories must have a reasonable chance to rise to the top and be rewarded. The App Store, for all its flaws, accomplished this on iOS. Facebook failed very badly in this area with its platform; it’ll have to do much better for sensory computing to succeed.

To go along with that economic model, you need evangelists: marketing/business managers who know how to recruit and motivate partners and developers. If Oculus had a staff of evangelists in place, they would have fanned out yesterday to explain the deal with Facebook and make sure it didn’t cause developers like Mojang to turn away.

Management. To run all of this, Oculus needs experienced people who have created platforms before and know how to avoid all the mistakes you can make along the way. This is a specialized area of knowledge, and not something you can learn on the job. Platform management is a skill set that doesn’t exist in either Facebook or Oculus today, and it’s also not available in Irvine, where Oculus is based. But it is available in Silicon Valley, 300 miles to the north.

The biggest challenge of all is figuring out how to make all of these changes and additions without overwhelming Oculus and losing its beautiful energy and vision and focus. I watched Palm turn from a spunky innovator into a bloated bureaucracy, and I don’t wish that fate on Oculus.

Some of the work, like driver creation, can be done in parallel without too much disruption to the core of Oculus. But many of the other changes reach into the heart of the company. It’ll take unusually skilled and patient management to implement all these changes. Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t have the time to do this, and I think Oculus doesn’t have all the bench strength it needs today. One of Mark’s key moves in growing Facebook was hiring experienced managers to supplement his skills. I think Oculus needs the same thing.

The big question

What does Mark Zuckerberg really want to do with Oculus? At this point there is enough contradictory information out there that you can read anything into the deal. But the most hopeful quote came from Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, who described the early discussions with Zuckerberg (link):

“We showed him some of the internal prototypes, and he got so excited about the vision of what we were doing and about the potential that this is truly the next computing platform. He actually said that to us. And it’s like, ‘Wow! We are looking at this whole thing being just that gaming platform. But tell us more, Mark.’ And he started to describe it, and we started to believe it too. And we started to relate it to a lot of the experiences we were having.”

I’m still very skeptical about the risks in the deal, but computing desperately needs new leadership and ideas, and I hope the combination of Oculus and Zuckerberg will deliver them. I want to believe.


Anonymous said...

One question you failed to answer or ask is what is the job that VR is hired to do?
What problem is it solving?

Game world was created by nerds because Evolution doesn't allow them to interact with bullies and girls in an equal manner.
So whole idea that they will define Social is a sick joke.

So we have a fantasy world created and VR is an extension of that.
Only way you can sell to the rest of the Alphas is if it provides some kind of reward from the brain
that the normal people are not getting from real world.

Humans evolved the plains of African 4 million years ago.
Artificial Light was not there to disrupt their sleep cycle.
Now you are going to have vision system and balance be effected by VR. No tech can solve the problem of Evolution.

The real problem Facebook is trying to solve is one of growth. This is same reason Amazon doesn't show any profit every quarter.

Anonymous said...

Agree with the above commenter. Facebook is under pressure to justify its valuation and to look like it knows how to keep growing its user base and their engagement.

I watched too many companies in the dot com era make huge acquisitions. That was an attempt to reset the books and postpone the moment of accountability by a few more years.

I hope FB investors know what their money is buying...

Anonymous said...

They will never solve the brain isolation problem with this headset so this whole discussion is academic. It will never pass Medical Review.

Chan said...

Let's dream.

OK, but I don't think that we have to dwell too much on it.

It's more likely Amazon scenario and Mark is trying to resolve it with Warren Buffet analogue, which is again have its complications.

WhatsApp was more sane in this regard Mark now have # million of our phone numbers which we were never willing to surrender to FB.

Of cause we haven't seen their photo-types either as Mark already have to envision anything as our commenter suggests but remotely possible.

On contrast I think to change the interaction point, it too 25 years from the mouse to touch, then voice is no here no there... in this regard I think another 10 years to see the iPhone effect or the scale. We haven figured out the wearable yet as Mace said in some other post. You did right? Glass is downright awkward, Siri is funny too and S Gaer solves a problem I don't have.

Also 50% of us will get motion sick..

Still Mace, yeah, of cause I too want to believe it though..

Chan said...

BTW, Mace have you checked their VR in person?