Atman Binstock was he was working late one night in the summer of 2015 when he saw an open door that shouldn’t have been opened. There were only two keys to the room, and for good reason: this is where the Oculus team kept the Toy box demo.
The Facebook-owned virtual reality company had just returned from the E3 video game show, where it used the demo to show off the capabilities of its new handheld controllers. In Toy box, you can build a block house, trigger mini rockets, even play ping pong, just by reaching out and using your hands as you normally would. Better yet, you could do all of these things with another person. Toy box showed not only that VR wouldn’t feel like playing a video game, it wasn’t going to isolate – that as WIRED wrote at the time, VR could allow people to be alone, together.
After E3, the Binstock team had rebuilt a demo module in the office so that more Oculus employees could try it out, but there had been… incidents. Hence the locked door, and therefore the two keys. I cannot have free for all. But now that door was open. Oh man, Binstock thought. I’m gonna ruin someone’s night. He poked his head around the room, ready to drop the hammer, and found his boss instead. His boss’s boss, really. There was Mark Zuckerberg, who the previous year had bought Oculus for about $ 2 billion.
“Oh, hi, Mark,” said Oculus’ chief architect. “Need help?”
“No, I’m fine,” the CEO of Facebook said.
So Binstock watched Zuckerberg practice organizing a Toy box demo with a prototype helmet and prototype controllers.
“You have to remember,” Binstock says now, “these things are cranky. It takes forever to start them and debug what’s wrong. But looking at it, it became clear that Zuckerberg wasn’t around to try out the demo; he was there to practice. He had a routine. He had a crackle. Binstock realized that the man who once said VR would “change the way we work, play and communicate” had spent hours getting good at it, just so he could personally share his vision of VR.
To say that a lot has happened since then – to Oculus, VR, Facebook, and people’s trust in all three – would be an understatement of “2020 was weird, eh?” All of the original Oculus founders have moved on, with a disjointed team giving way to Facebook Reality Labs, a huge AR / VR division that can make up as much as 20% of all Facebook workforce. The Oculus Quest 2, The multi-million dollar RV sales device currently, is half the price and much more powerful than the Rift, the company’s first mass-produced dedicated headset. Facebook has penetrated deeper into the physical space with the portal’s video calling device, and a year of pandemic lockdown has been very nice to both. What the weather has been less kind to is public sentiment; between its complicity in the disinformation campaigns of the 2016 election, the confidentiality issues arising from its advertising business model, concerns about AI bias, and other issues, Facebook has found itself on the defense far more often than any business would like.
Still, all of that change made this week in particular a good time to take stock: it just so happens to be the fifth anniversary of the Oculus Rift. In those five years, despite everything, Facebook has solved an astonishing number of problems. And as the company looks to the future, these issues – as well as those that have yet to be resolved – feature prominently. From his Luxxotica smart glasses coming later this year to the far future Facebook imagines for all to see, Zuckerberg has maintained his beliefs about the inevitable ubiquity of AR and VR. The technology has survived its lean early years, but going from a few million users to a billion means more than just adding a few commas. The question is whether the bet pays off.