Oculus dominates the present of virtual reality was born from the dream of two video game fans. It grew because of the obsession of its buyer, Facebook. And after the abrupt departure of its founders, its future is in the hands of a man with a broken heart.
The much anticipated IPO of Xiaomi, the Chinese Apple wannabe, had an exceptional guest, Hugo Barra. The most beloved Brazilian executive in Silicon Valley carried the orange flag of the Chinese brand and the rabbit mascot with a filosoviet cap around the world. But two years ago he had stopped working with them.
What did he paint on such a marked date?
Apart from being a reference shareholder, thanks to the generous vesting (shares that the startups distribute with their employees to make them loyal), Xiaomi was their therapy. Barra cured himself in his offices and returned to the San Francisco Bay to put order in a company adrift: Oculus, the promising virtual reality acquired by Facebook, lived scandal after scandal.
Barra had been one of the most promising Latinos in Silicon Valley, a 41-year-old Brazilian who speaks Spanish with a Colombian accent, the visible face of Android at its best, who left Google in an unexpected way. Behind his exit there was not an offer, but a broken heart.
A fusion forged in Google
Barra left Silicon Valley in the summer of 2013 with a sentimental wound. In full promotion of Google Glass it was discovered that Amanda Rosenberg, the product manager who posed as a model of the deceased glasses, Barra’s girlfriend at that time, had an affair with Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google. Brin’s marriage was blown up. Barra’s heart was shattered and he decided to accept the offer of work he had on the table to move to Hong Kong. He was the man who managed to turn Xiaomi into a global brand, a player who aspires to the big leagues.
At the beginning of 2017, Facebook unveiled the news: Barra was returning to Silicon Valley. He did so with the rank of head of the virtual reality division, with his own company, as are WhatsApp and Instagram, the two most important acquisitions.
In F8, the annual Facebook conference, pulled out of the Go hat, manufactured by Xiaomi. Master play. The Chinese manufacturer has a great product for a global market, and he again shined before more than 7000 people. He had left behind the glasses Google Glass, today almost the object of mockery, to lead those who invite to dream and think about virtual worlds.
Oculus Go goggles do not require connection to a computer or smartphone, since they have all the integrated hardware
All a metaphor, but also a hornet’s nest: Oculus was the most complex acquisition of Facebook, with permission from WhatsApp (the founders of the messaging app, Jan Koum and Brian Acton, left Facebook with messy boxes and the odd reproach after comply with the four regulatory years).
Oculus Go, the collaboration
In Oculus, Barra has been the big brother who has returned to take flight and to enhance a pioneer startup that could not find the way. By merging the technology of Xiaomi with the previous advances of the founders of Oculus has managed to beat the proposal of Google with its DayDream or Sony, only available with PS4, as powerful as difficult to get out of home. With Oculus Go, the device manufactured by Xiaomi, Barra has placed them ahead and ended up reigning in a lost company.
It had all started in a bedroom outside of Los Angeles, where Brendan Iribe, one of the founders of Oculus, a father on the Latino side and obsessed with education since he was a child, dreamed of playing video games. He remembered how, in his childhood, Nintendo already tried to put him in other worlds using prisms that ended up dizzy.
In 2012, along with Palmer Luckey, a kid with radical ideas and great technical skills, they launched a kickstarter to finance themselves. They raised half a million dollars with an idea. There was something. They kept going until they got Facebook’s attention. Mark Zuckerberg is obsessed with losing a generation. He wants to always know what is missing in his social network to avoid the leakage of users. And if along the way they should leave 22,000 million dollars for a messaging app, 1000 for a photo or 2000 for virtual reality, they are left.
With the election campaign came the dislikes. Luckey was not only a Republican, but he also supported Trump in a dirty way. He was among those who paid online ads to defame Hillary Clinton. The initial scandal coincided with the first important movement of the company. Luckey happened to have a role outside the spotlight.
The first Oculus conference was totally underground
The second, quite the opposite. They were already under the tentacles of Facebook. The great social network was not going to miss the opportunity to send a message to the most powerful industry in Los Angeles, the cinema. Zuckerberg opened the conference in the same theater, on the same stage where the Oscars are presented. I wanted to prestige the format.
His threat was short-lived. The next two years the meeting, with less force, was in San José, the historic capital of Silicon Valley, on its southern limit. The honeymoon with the founders of Oculus was over.
A bunch of risky choices
Iribe decided to leave to live life a little bit. Luckey had a more ambitious plan. After selling his company to Facebook and seeing how he was hired by a new superior brought from China, he decided to start his new startup. He did it at the right time, with the arrival of Trump to the presidency. The idea of Luckey was too tempting not to fantasize about it: a video surveillance system on the border (while deciding whether to build the wall and who will pay for it) to detect wet backs without the need to move. Virtual reality takes power and dehumanizes.
They are not the only ones who have got into this sector. Microsoft boasted about the contract of its cloud Azure with the security of the State. All good, celebrating results, until the separation of immigrant parents and children comes to light. They had gone from being a service provider to an unscrupulous accomplice.
At Google, engineers more than ten years old decided to leave as a protest for security contracts related to the Army. The last fear is that they end up applying artificial intelligence to new robots. Some people consider it hypocritical. Some believe that Silicon Valley now returns to its military origins. This industry sometimes shows signs of selective amnesia. Not only for the Darpa project as the embryo of the Internet, but also for military research, interconnection and radars.
Oculus, the new face of virtual reality
Oculus has been the example that shows that, sometimes, due diligence (the process of analysis and verification that everything is adjusted to what was promised in a company before its acquisition or investment) was not as deep as it should be. Or maybe it is, but it left aside something very important, for which perhaps the numbers do not count so much: the human factor. Luckey, cold, calculating, with a certain spirit of revenge, took his creation to the precipice because of his strong opinions and his anti-immigrant drift. Barra, a being with feelings on the surface, returned from exile so that virtual reality would have a new opportunity and recover the magic of its beginnings.
Also published on Medium.