A year ago today, Facebook acquired Oculus VR for a total of $2 billion. The Oculus Rift VR headset was making waves at that point, looking like the clear frontrunner in a new market. The purchased showed the tech industry that VR was the next frontier for visual entertainment.
"[Oculus] technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences," said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the time. "Immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to accelerate. The Rift is highly anticipated by the gaming community, and there's a lot of interest from developers in building for this platform."
"But this is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences," he added. "Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform. One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people."
People ranted and raved, lamenting the lack of Oculus VR's independence or happy that they finally had Facebook's considerable resources behind them. We all expected big changes for Oculus VR.
A year later, the company and its products feel much the same. We have more VR games and applications to work with and Oculus VR has a larger presence at conventions, but otherwise the company feels like it's merely continuing the same trajectory it had before. Oculus VR is currently touting the Crescent Bay prototype, which features a host of hardware upgrades and software improvements, including positional surround sound and 360 degree head tracking, but it feels largely like another bump forward.
What Facebook has brought to the table is a greater reach toward the mainstream consumer. Today at F8, the Facebook Developer Conference, the company showed off 3D spherical video support on the Facebook platform. The video demo has full Oculus Rift support, allowing people to click on a video in their Newsfeed, strap on an Rift headset, and cruise around virtual environments. Not particularly helpful for gaming, but it's a use for the Rift that the average consumer might enjoy.
Facebook also probably helped along the first real consumer VR push, Samsung Gear VR. The system uses Oculus software and expertise in tandem with Samsung's hardware and consumer reach. Starting on Friday, you can stroll into a Best Buy and pick up a $200 Gear VR Innovator Edition for use with any Samsung Galaxy Note 4. The platform will be expanding in the future as well, allowing Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge owners to get in on the VR action. Gear VR is the first step to seeing if consumers even care about VR, or if it'll go the way of 3D TVs.
No, the real growth we've seen this year hasn't come from Oculus VR itself, but from everyone else. Facebook's acquisition, like Amazon's purchase of Twitch, signaled that VR was a space for serious competition. What we finally have is a real, old-fashioned horse race in the VR market.
Sony has entered the ring with Project Morpheus, a PlayStation 4-exclusive headset planned for launch in the first half of 2016. Since it was first announced, Sony has iterated on the design for comfort and power: the headset now sports a new 1920 x 1080 display and 120Hz refresh rate to minimize motion blur. Morpheus has a limited range due to being stuck on a single platform, but the PlayStation 4's 20.2 million owners are more likely to be enthusiasts and potentially be into VR.
Valve has an entire Steam VR platform in the works, with the first production headset being the Vive, made in collaboration with handset maker HTC. The Developer Edition of the Vive headset is coming this spring, with a consumer-level product planned for this holiday season. The Vive features two 1200 x 1080 screens with a 90Hz refresh rate, room size and head tracking, and its own custom 3D controller. The controller - which looks vaguely like two scary Wii Remotes - pushes the Vive even farther than the Rift as a enthusiast product for core PC users, allowing for a more immersive experience than its rival. The room tracking works via Valve's Steam VR base stations, which can handle up to 15 x 15 ft room.
Valve is going all in against Oculus VR, with a full set of SteamVR APIs for developers and additional OpenVR equivalents if you're open-source. And while the Vive is coming first, it won't be the only SteamVR headset on the horizon.
Finally, there's Microsoft's HoloLens project, which isn't really VR at all. Instead, Microsoft is betting on augmented reality as entertainment's future. The HoloLens projects 3D objects onto the world you can already see, much like the Nintendo 3DS's AR function, albeit with higher fidelity. Microsoft has a different version of its upcoming Windows 10 operating system planned for the HoloLens. Honestly, that's where I see that particular technology taking off, in productivity. Being able to manipulate items Minority Report or Iron Man-style could end up being rather useful, especially when you require additional information while remaining fully anchored in the real world.
These contenders stand out before we even get to the smaller also-rans, like the smartphone-agnostic Zeiss VR One, Razer's developer-focused OSVR, or the Archos VR headset.
Facebook buying Oculus VR may have helped Oculus VR, but what it really did was kickoff a much larger focus on VR technology in our industry and tech. There's now more sharp, inquiring minds focused on figuring out the technology's benefits and drawbacks. There's more intrepid developers making new games and applications for VR, focused on new experiences and translations of old ones. The VR space is growing quickly, even though we haven't figured out if consumers want it yet. The real litmus test will come later this year and early in 2016.