Yet all that change has made this week in particular a good time to take stock: It just happens to be the five-year anniversary of the Oculus Rift. Over those five years, despite everything, Facebook has solved an astonishing number of problems. And as the company looks ahead, those issues—as well as ones yet unsolved—figure prominently. From its Luxxotica smart glasses coming later this year to the far-flung future Facebook is imagining in plain view, Zuckerberg has maintained his convictions about AR and VR’s inevitable ubiquity. The technology has survived its initial lean years, but going from a few million users to a billion means far more than just adding a couple of commas. The question is if the bet pays off.
Think back to those first few years of the current age of virtual reality. The first Rift prototype showed up behind closed doors at E3 in 2012. That fall, Kickstarter users ponied up nearly $2.5 million to get their hands on the first developer version of the headset. Headquartered in Southern California at the time, Oculus began to grow. Fast. 2013 brought nearly $100 million in funding. As it grew, it started working out many of the kinks that had plagued VR the first time around in the ’90s. When the Rift finally came out (with the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR not too far behind), the headset managed to do something no predecessor had: deliver stable and comfortable virtual reality for the price of a game console.
But that delivery wasn’t easy. The headset needed a high-end gaming PC to power it, and its cables snaked everywhere. It needed external sensors to track its position in space, which added yet more cables and hardware. It wasn’t uncommon for early adopters to encounter driver updates and USB port errors that demanded a monk’s patience to figure out. Just because some problems had been solved didn’t mean the solutions weren’t stopgap measures, and there were miles to go before VR headsets would be as intuitive and turnkey as a smartphone.
So the work continued, as it did at other companies. But acquiring Oculus had only been the beginning; Facebook had also begun pouring resources into supercharging the company’s internal research pipeline. “It felt like if we put a lot of time and energy behind it, we could accelerate this into something that could get wide adoption—because that’s the only way we would all be interested in it,” says Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s CTO. “If it was some super-niche high-end very expensive toy, it just wouldn’t fit with what Facebook was trying to do. So from the very beginning, it was, ‘Can we take this thing and turn it into something that everyone can have?’”
Something “everyone can have” had been a priority for Zuckerberg since well before he acquired Oculus in 2014. “I talked to Zuck in 2012, when I was originally recruited to Facebook,” says Caitlin Kalinowski, who’s now head of hardware for Oculus, “and he understood already where the company would need to go in terms of owning a hardware portion of the next platform. I don’t think he knew what it was yet, but he really understood VR’s potential.” First had come a dedicated team in Seattle, where chief scientist Michael Abrash and Binstock had begun digging into VR’s thorniest problems; later came facilities in nearby Redmond and across the country in Pittsburgh, where an ever growing phalanx of PhD-level specialists sought to untether VR and push immersion as far as possible. Back in Menlo Park, Kalinowski and her colleagues worked to turn the emergent technologies into product form.
As money flowed in, progress flowed out. First came the Oculus Go, in May 2018. It was wireless but couldn’t track itself in space, constraining the experience to something more like a cell-phone-powered device. (Remember Samsung Gear VR? Google Cardboard?) A year later, though, the Quest fixed that too; the company had figured out how to integrate outward-looking sensors, finally getting over the hurdle of “inside-out” tracking. Then, in December 2020, a sequel followed: the Quest 2. In the space of five years, Facebook had increased its annual R&D spending from $5.9 billion to nearly $18.5 billion. It had also turned its flagship VR headset into something that was a big step closer to a mainstream device, at half the price of the Rift.
Perhaps more significant than the headset itself, though, is the financial potential that the VR ecosystem has begun to realize on the software side of the equation. In 2016 a game called Raw Data became the first VR title to bring in $1 million in revenue. By the beginning of 2020, more than 100 others had joined it. And that’s across all VR platforms; on the Quest line specifically, fully one-third of titles for sale have done the same.