Oculus and the Facebook of Tomorrow

A few quick caveats up front:

  • I’ve not used an Oculus Rift VR headset, and I’m not even much of a gamer anymore.
  • I’m working on multiple projects right now and I’m sleep deprived.
  • I’m highly caffeinated.

Still, the news that Facebook is buying Oculus for $2 billion ($1.6 billion of which is Facebook stock), I, too made jokes on Twitter about it.

I mean how could I not? A giant social media advertising company is buying a company that is designing, of all things, virtual-reality (VR) hardware and software.

But I think it could turn out to be a savvy move on the part of Zuckerberg in the long run, based on two tangential relationships I have. (Look, I warned you up front. I’m not trying to be a hard-hitting journalist here. I’m actually typing this on my iPad in a quiet kitchen while more coffee brews.)

I know a guy (who I’m leaving anonymous here) with many years of experience (those are real years, not stretched Silicon Valley years) managing servers at Internet service providers. He knows more about network hardware than I know about most things, and just looking at the impeccable ways he strings cable so it’s not a mess tells you that right away.

A few years ago, he left what seemed like a solid job to go work for Facebook in one of their new data operations centers. This was before your parents had joined Facebook, so it sounded pretty crazy. But he pointed out that even then, the amount of data pouring through Facebook’s machines was immense, especially the vast numbers of digital photos. Although he was going to work for a company best known for its trivial content and sketchy privacy attitudes, it was clearly one of the most interesting, most challenging places to be if you wanted to shape how data on such a scale operates.

I know another guy, Mike Matas, a designer and photographer I’ve met a couple of times who left a successful startup to work at Apple, designed the original iPhone battery icon (among many other things), and then left the world’s biggest fruit company to blaze a trail as an independent software developer again. He and a small band of folks made the interactive version of Al Gore’s book Our Choice, gave an impressive TED talk about it, and looked poised to usher in a new chapter (ha, it’s the caffeine) of interactive ebooks.

Facebook bought his company. Facebook wasn’t, as far as I can tell from the outside, interested in making ebooks. They wanted design talent. And since Matas has been at Facebook, he and his colleagues made big changes to the Facebook Camera app (right as the company bought Instagram for what now seems like a small amount, $1 billion) and recently released the much-lauded Paper app (well, lauded for the design and interactive elements, not so much the stealing of another company’s name).

Now, the thing that ties these two men together, and how it relates to Oculus, is this: They’re both still at Facebook. Part of the Silicon Valley culture, it seems, is that people don’t feel obligated to stick around at companies for too long, especially people who’ve sold their companies and hang out until their options vest.

I admit I don’t know the first man beyond social interactions and I don’t know Matas at all aside from an introduction and a nod hello, but my sense is that more is happening at Facebook behind the blue curtains. My purely gut-level impression is that there are actually two “Facebooks.” The ad-generating behemoth that traffics in funny pictures and quasi-inspirational quotes and an abundance of auto-playing videos and ads is the Facebook of now, and because it’s yoked to impressions and traffic and eyeballs (eww), it has to do all these obnoxious things because that pays the bills even as advertising revenue is losing its effectiveness.

The second Facebook is the one of tomorrow, which doesn’t have to be tied to the current one except in the sense that those Upworthy posts are paying for these two men and plenty of other talented people to work on innovations whose effects are still a few years out.

That’s where Oculus fits in. VR has always been a few years out. It’s the technology that appears in all the movies because no one can make it really work in the real world. But from what I’ve heard, the Oculus folks are genuinely on to something, which likely won’t make its full effect as a pair of digital ski goggles strapped to your head. And Facebook, which has a lot of cash—and more important, a lot of potential—can afford to scoop up this startup now for the future Facebook to work and play with.

It’s easy for us to look at things as they are now and wonder how disparate pieces fit together. Ten years ago, Apple started playing with touchscreen technology in its labs, invented a prototype iPad, then shelved it for a spell until the opportunity arose to create a phone. A phone, from the company that only made computers that were for artists and music players that were for kids, according to much popular opinion. Now look at us. I just wrote this piece on my iPad and it’s likely you read it on an iPhone, iPad, or other touchscreen device.

Coffee’s brewed. Time to tackle the next challenge.

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