Though his appointment was announced much earlier in the year, this month is Hugo Barra’s first as the head of Oculus, leading Facebook’s VR division under the role of ‘VP of VR’. Barra joins the Oculus Rift maker shortly after it was split into two teams, one of which focuses on PC-based VR, the other on mobile. But, of course, that’s far from all that’s happened to Oculus in the past few months.
The week before Barra started, Rift creator and company founder Palmer Luckey left Facebook. We all know Luckey’s story by now, but he isn’t the only one to make a swift departure from this new Oculus. Earlier this week we also found out that Anna Sweet, the company’s former Head of SocialVR content, had also parted ways in order to start up her own independent development studio. It’s never been clearer that this is a transformative time for Oculus, but these changes may not be as immediately obvious to you and me they might first seem.
Oculus has made its message for 2017 clear; content is king. Though there are new hardware projects on the horizon — a new Gear VR controller, the Santa Cruz standalone device, and the inevitable Rift successor — it’s clear Oculus doesn’t have any major product shake ups planned for the next few months. No positional tracking for Gear VR yet, for example, and no dramatically improved displays for Rift. Instead, most of 2017 is going to be about software; that was the message at GDC last month, and we’ll continue to see at least one new Studios game a month between now and December.
But some members of Oculus aren’t shying away from what the future of Facebook VR will be. Head of Content Jason Rubin, for example, recently acknowledged that Oculus may not forever be making games similar to the console business. Inherently, that’s not the company Facebook is; it wants to own the ecosystem that other people make content for, much like the social network its made its name on. One day Oculus might just be the hardware provider, though it will obviously have its hands deep in another aspect of VR: social.
Facebook’s own developer conference, F8, will be popping up next week, and I wonder if the company might outline its vision of the future of VR there. In fact I’d say it was very likely that Facebook’s own social VR features, which first debuted at last year’s show, are shown once more. The question right now is simple; when will we actually get to try those features out for ourselves? It looked pretty feature-complete at Oculus Connect 3 last year and, while that’s obviously a vertical slice of the entire experience, we’d love to see it hit this year.
That brings us to Oculus Connect 4, which hasn’t been announced yet, but usually takes place around September or October. Last year the company had a lot to share, much of it looking to the far-flung future of VR, including Santa Cruz. All of that will be a year closer by the time Connect 4 rolls around and we want to see the progress Oculus has made. With Intel promising standalone headsets out later this year, will Facebook rush to get a competitor to market? Or is Santa Cruz destined to have a long development cycle similar to that of the Rift?
We’ll also be interested to see if Luckey and Sweet are the last of the departures from Oculus over the next 12 months. Transition periods can be tough, and people might find they no longer fit into the company (or perhaps the company doesn’t want them to fit there).
Oculus has had a difficult start to 2017, but Barra’s appointment could be a new beginning for it. Will he lead the company into calmer waters?