When Facebook purchased Oculus VR for $2 billion, both companies stayed fairly tight-lipped about their goals. The money would help Oculus build virtual reality headsets cheaper and better, while Facebook would have a chance to lead the next big computing platform. However, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe just told an audience at TechCrunch Disrupt about one lofty possibility for the pair: building a massively multiplayer experience for one billion simultaneous users. "This is going to be an MMO where we want to put a billion people in VR," he told attendees.
While Iribe admits that a billion-person MMO is "going to take a bigger network than exists in the world today," he says Facebook's network makes a great place to start, and suggested it could be a Metaverse that joins disparate virtual worlds.
"Do we want to be Game Boy or iPhone?"
Getting to one billion users may also have been the reason Oculus decided to join up with Facebook instead of a traditional gaming company. While Iribe says Oculus is still as committed to games as ever, the company realized that a focus on games could artificially limit its reach. "Do you want to build a platform that has a billion users on it, or only 10, 20, or 50 million?" asks Iribe, noting that dedicated game systems don't sell nearly as well as mobile devices in the grand scheme of things.
Obviously, the billion-person MMO is a long ways off, but the company has its eye on a stepping stone: Oculus hopes to convince players that they're having a "real conversation" with another person. For now, the uncanny valley of imperfect video game graphics will keep people from having photorealistic faces, but even cartoony ones might be enough to get us to the tipping point, Iribe says. "[I]f you let go, you can have a real conversation with a person. That's the holy grail we're trying to get to."
And should they indeed reach that scale with Facebook's help, there's another potential application for all those people. Last year, NASA dreamt how a billion-person VR holodeck could help search the cosmos for signs of extraterrestrial life. That sounds like a game worth playing.
"This is like the final frontier."
The Oculus CEO says that the company's new Seattle offices — headed by Valve veteran Michael Abrash — will become an R&D lab that will engage with universities and work with students on virtual reality. "We think this is going to be one of the most researched areas in decades to come," says Iribe.