Virtual reality meets cold, hard cash


Congratulations, Oculus! The virtual reality company managed to get itself purchased by Facebook before producing the first consumer version of its product.

“I’m impressed; usually forms of media have to come into existence first before they are taken over and ruined by ad companies. This may be a new record,” one person commented online about the deal.

I am not an expert in virtual reality. Actual reality is hard enough to navigate. I have barely mastered the interface, and I am 26 years old.

I can’t get the dang thing to save. I still walk into things. I haven’t gotten flossing to work, even though that’s clearly a built-in command. I keep repeating elaborate series of actions that never obtain any result. I am forever putting down important items and forgetting them. I can’t figure out how to get extra lives. I spend most of my time wandering around making unnecessary hand gestures and murmuring to myself, like a Sim who was surprised by a new piece of furniture.

I haven’t even managed to steal any automobiles, and if I have any superpowers, I have yet to unlock them. No one ever tells me what my objectives are; to an uninformed observer, it would appear my only consistent one is to get coffee every day, no matter what else is going on, and that doesn’t seem right.

Other players keep zooming past me, flying airplanes and conducting heists and making millions of dollars. Evidently they discovered cheat codes of which I am unaware.

But one person who seems to have gotten actual reality to work is Palmer Luckey of Oculus VR. Facebook announced Tuesday it would buy Oculus for $2 billion. Luckey wrote a note on Reddit trying to explain why this was a good idea (I can think of at least 2 billion reasons!).

Reddit is up in arms. Judging by many of the comments, the people who lavishly crowd-funded the virtual reality project through Kickstarter, to the tune of $2 million in 2012, are up in arms, too.

This says less about Oculus and more about Kickstarter. Kickstarting, in general, consists of people giving you hope and you giving them money. But it’s all muddied by the terminology — project, backer.

As Patrick Klepek wrote on GiantBomb.com, “Backer. That’s a problematic term. It sounds too much like investor. It implies more control than what Kickstarter actually offers.”

Sometimes this works. You get your magical fly swatter from the future without a hitch, and everyone goes home happy. Sometimes, though, it doesn’t. I’m still waiting for that novel I Kickstarted months and months ago. (No pressure.)

But this is the trouble with Kickstarter — you get the spurious sense of being an investor without any of the perks. You are, as Klepek noted, emotionally invested. You paid money. You had feelings. That seems like an investment. Where is your payoff?

“Backing a project is more than just giving someone money,” Kickstarter’s website notes. “It’s supporting their dream to create something that they want to see exist in the world… . Some projects take longer than anticipated, but creators who are transparent about issues and delays usually find their backers to be understanding.”

But it’s all in the fine print. You get perks but no say. You give people your money so they will, you hope, make you things. “You hope” being the key phrase.

But there is no guarantee they will make the things in question and, anyway, you have no equity. The only virtual-reality experience you are guaranteed is the one in which you imagine you will be compensated in some way for being an enthusiastic, early supporter of the project.

To a degree, it’s the same problem Facebook has — the one that makes us so mistrustful of it. It’s free because you’re not the consumer, you’re the product. It feels like one experience — it’s designed to give you that experience — but it’s actually another. When you give money to make a Kickstarter project happen, you’re not the investor, you’re the consumer.

Talk about virtual reality.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.

 

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