The Oculus Rift first made the news when it was announced on Kickstarter and raised a whopping 2.4 million US dollars. This was in 2012: four years ago at the time of writing. The huge success of the Rift’s crowdfunding campaign drew a lot of attention, and not just in the PC industry, either. The gaming industry, entertainment industry, technology industry… everyone raised an eyebrow at the implications of powerful, affordable VR. The interest in this tech was so strong, in fact, that Facebook swooped in and purchased Oculus for $2 billion.
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This is where our story begins. Once a champion of one of the latest, greatest steps forward in consumer technology, Oculus is now one of the largest threats to an industry it helped revive.
The VR Revolution and Oculus
Oculus is responsible for the modern VR revolution. Even the initial DK1 version of the Oculus Rift was a massive leap forward in technology compared to older versions of VR, with the DK2 adding head-tracking and the later versions upping screen resolution, refresh rate, motion-tracking capabilities, and more. What was once a pipe dream in the 60s has finally become a fully-fledged, working technology here in the 21st century, and it’s only a matter of time until VR and graphics technology gets powerful enough to create simulations indistinguishable from reality. Oculus has very much earned its place in the history books here.
With the rise of Oculus, however, came the rise of other companies trying to compete in this industry, such as Valve and HTC with the HTC Vive. An incident with the HTC Vive is what spurred the creation of this article, but let’s start by contextualizing “the promise” and how that promise has since been broken.
Oculus, Revive and Broken Promises
“If customers buy a game from us, I don’t care if they mod it to run on whatever they want. As I have said a million times (and counter to the current circlejerk), our goal is not to profit by locking people to only our hardware – if it was, why in the world would we be supporting GearVR and talking with other headset makers? The software we create through Oculus Studios (using a mix of internal and external developers) are exclusive to the Oculus platform, not the Rift itself.” – Palmer Luckey, Founder of Oculus VR, on Reddit
When Luckey made this statement, fans were enthused to hear that Oculus-exclusive titles like Lucky’s Tale wouldn’t be locked down to only a single platform. Console gamers may be used to hardware-locked games, but the PC space is quite different. We may be willing to deal with installing different DRM clients to access different games (Steam, Battle.net, etc), but the openness of the PC platform means that these online marketplaces are constantly competing with each other (unlike on consoles, where there is only one digital storefront) and aren’t locking down games to hardware. The difference between locking a game to a marketplace like Steam and locking a game to hardware like a console or VR headset is that access to the storefront itself is free. Spending hundreds of dollars on new hardware to play just a few games is not.
Enter Revive and its developer, LibreVR. Revive is a software hack designed to allow people to play titles from the Oculus platform on the HTC Vive. The earliest version of Revive didn’t circumvent piracy safeguards in any capacity, it just tricked the Oculus Home software into thinking it was being run on a Rift (instead of a Vive), alongside an additional hack that made the games compatible. If you’re paying attention, Revive sounds like just the kind of tool Palmer described: one that allowed Oculus-exclusive games to run on other VR headsets.
A month after Revive’s April release, Oculus released a software update that intentionally broke Revive. The update specifically checks to make sure that an Oculus Rift is being used, locking out other VR headsets from playing. Prior to this, the Revive wasn’t created to break piracy and copy protection at all: it was used to allow HTC Vive users to play legitimately purchased titles from the Oculus Home store on their VR headset of choice. With this update, Revive has been forced to break through that, so now Oculus is responsible for DRM that locks users to certain VR platforms and opens its own to a wave of privacy.
My Thoughts, And Yours
This stands against the openness of the PC platform comes at the detriment of developers and users alike. VR has evolved, yes, but it’s still a prohibitively expensive technology for a very small niche. Building walls between consumers who already occupy a positively minuscule part of the market at whole damages the entire Virtual Reality scene, and with this move, Oculus has lost the goodwill that propelled it through a wildly successful crowdfunding campaign.
Does this have something to do with Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus? That’s uncertain. What is certain is that Oculus is making intentional steps toward hardware-locked software and features in the VR space, and if this behavior becomes popular, Oculus could be responsible for both the revival and ruination of VR.
But what do you think? I’ll be keeping a close eye on the comments for this article, and I look forward to intelligent debate. Sound off, and let yourself be heard!