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In December, Facebook made one of its most intriguing acquisitions in years, spending a reported $78 million to buy PlayGiga, a Spanish company specializing in cloud gaming. It seemed to put Facebook on a path similar to that of Google, Microsoft, Nvidia and Amazon: Each is working on its own way to stream games from data centers rather than relying on PCs or consoles. But Facebook's cloud gaming ambitions have remained a mystery. For months the company has essentially refused to discuss it.
But in an interview with Protocol, Jason Rubin, a gaming lifer who is Facebook's vice president for special gaming initiatives, said that within Facebook, Oculus could present a major opportunity for cloud gaming. He said that while no actual cloud products were imminent, big brains at the company are thinking hard about how cloud technology could revolutionize virtual reality. This week, Facebook celebrates the first birthday of the Oculus Quest, the company's first modern VR headset that does not require connection to a computer. Facebook hopes that the Quest's ease-of-use propels VR into the consumer entertainment mainstream.
Rubin also said Facebook is pushing its previously far-flung gaming divisions to work more closely together. Oculus now appears to be operating more like a traditional Facebook division than as an independent subsidiary. Vivek Sharma, previously Facebook's head of gaming product, was promoted earlier this year to VP of gaming and is now Rubin's boss.
People close to Facebook's gaming divisions said the company will deploy PlayGiga's cloud gaming technology first on more traditional gaming platforms like phones and PCs. Yet Rubin's comments about cloud VR as an ultimate goal shed new light on Facebook's cloud strategy.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Before we get to products, I have a basic organizational question. I can't always understand what goes on within Facebook.
Yeah. Facebook's org structure is opaque internally, and I'm sure completely and utterly impossible to follow externally. For gaming, in the past the verticals were so separate, we didn't really have that much interaction with each other, but now there's a significant amount more chatter back and forth between the various gaming verticals, and we're really getting a lot closer and creating a more cohesive package to deliver.
Part of my transition onto the gaming team and away from AR/VR, which is Oculus' parent, is the fact that I bring all the knowledge of what was going on over there as well as all of the relationships, so the teams can get closer to each other. So the two major gaming pillars — Facebook Gaming and Oculus AR/VR — have that connection.
We're not going to call you the Facebook gaming czar yet, right?
No, there are multiple Facebook gaming czars. Think of us as that table of mob bosses that comes in and sits around the table, without the baseball bat moment. So far nobody's gotten the bat, but we're a bunch of people working on games.
Who else is at that table beside you and Mike Verdu [VP of content, AR/VR]?
Vivek Sharma, who is my manager and runs Facebook's gaming group. I'm working more on the day-to-day game strategy and he's working more on running the game group, as well as overseeing other things that I don't have a role in right now. So he and I are working over on the Facebook Gaming side.
You have Leo [Olebe, global director of games partnerships], who maintains a lot of the partnerships, as well as Ash [Jhaveri, VP of business development], his manager, who's the head of parts of our partnerships organization and certainly runs every game partnership, along with others outside of gaming.
There's Vijaye [Raji, VP of entertainment], who's Vivek's manager and also oversees entertainment and video at Facebook. And then we have also the ads side. Our game ad business is massive. They have a seat at the table as well.
The other thing I'd say is that outside that group, interest in gaming rises right to the top. I mean Mark [Zuckerberg] believes in communities, and he goes looking for communities that are strong and upcoming. You have massive communities like religion, nationalities or sports. Gaming is quite large and growing in that list of community groups, and is becoming more social over time.
As you work on new technologies like mixed-reality streaming, would we be more likely to see that first on a service like Twitch or on your own Facebook Gaming platform?
It depends on what the thing is. From a broad, top-level thought process, we want to entertain consumers, and we want to get information about our products out. If the most effective way to do that would be to go to Twitch first, we would probably go to Twitch first. But there are a lot of times where what we want to do isn't available in the marketplace in any form, and the only way the marketplace gets to do it is if we build it ourselves.
And in that case, you want to work with your internal teams, right?
Yeah, because they're the only ones that you can convince to take a flyer on some idea you have that doesn't necessarily make sense either financially, or they just don't believe in it.
So hypothetically, if you wanted to get Call of Duty on Oculus, who would make the call to [Activision Blizzard CEO] Bobby Kotick? Who says, "Hey Bobby, we want Call of Duty on Oculus. What's that gonna cost?"
It certainly wouldn't be me, even though I know a lot of people at Activision, because I'm not in the AR/VR group. It would probably at this point be Mike Verdu who would call and get that communication going.
It might be Boz [Andrew Bosworth, VP of AR/VR], it might be Mark, if they're in the right place at the right time and Mark knows that we're interested in it. Again, that's a hypothetical, but that would be the direction that we would take.
Oculus users could soon have more AAA games to choose from.Photo: Courtesy of Facebook
How important are those AAA, top-quality games in particular for Oculus and for Facebook going forward?
It's important, and specifically important because there's a segment of the gaming market that wants VR and is very interested in VR, but is waiting for VR to have credibility from the few brands that those gamers believe in. And that audience is necessary to get to mass-market, to get to scale. You will see those AAA products. Regardless of who makes the call and what the actual deal is, I think you will see those products.
You all fundamentally believe that you can generate these larger sort of AAA experiences on the onboard Quest hardware and architecture without needing to be plugged in to a computer?
We're going to pull AAA apart for a second. Let's start with the graphic fidelity. It isn't going to happen anytime soon for a portable device to have PC graphics on-headset for simple physics, battery and heat-dissipation reasons.
So if what is meant by AAA is the graphic fidelity of Asgard's Wrath, that's not happening on a local headset, for the same reason that people can't get those games to run on phones and anything else that's battery powered and needs to dissipate heat. You can plug it into a wall, and you can put a liquid-cooled or fan-cooled graphics card in it, and sure. But you can't do that on somebody's face.
There is a way that you can do that on a device and stream it to somebody's face wirelessly, and that probably will happen relatively soon. The problem with that is that's not horribly portable like the Quest is, and what we're finding from consumers is they really want that portability.
In the longer run, and now I'm really waving my hands around and speaking like [Chief Scientist of Facebook Reality Labs] Michael Abrash, there should be ways to stream that from a computer, over your Wi-Fi, to your face. I won't get into the incredible amount of challenges that need to be overcome to get there, but in the long run, that's the way that head-mounted devices end up with AAA-graphic-quality games.
If you get away from the graphic quality for a moment, and you get into the depth of experience, length of experience, craftsmanship of the experience, I think you can get some really big, amazingly deep games onto the Quest platform, and I think you're going to see them in the next year or so. Depending on what we're looking at, it's more a budget/time issue than it is a graphic fidelity/processor issue.
But, again, ultimately we'll throw those processors in a server farm somewhere and stream to your headset. And a lot of people are going to say, "Oh my god, that's a million years away." It's not a million. It's not five. It's somewhere between.
I can tell you this: Nobody is banking on cloud processing making standalone VR headsets viable. We have to make them viable with the chipsets that are in them. But in the long run, cloud solves a lot of problems because it most effectively puts the processing power where it's needed. Now there's latency issues, resolution issues, frame rate issues, tons of issues. And it's a hell of a lot more uncomfortable when it's a frame that's right in front of your face than it is when you miss a frame on a TV that's across the room. So all of these things have to be solved, but no one thinks it's impossible. It's a hypothetical that can be done but it's not coming anytime soon. It is very, very complicated.
When we talk about the potential trajectory of VR as a mass consumer category, some people liken VR to 3D television. Is that a fair comparison?
The answer to that question is simple. 3D television delivered the exact same experience in a way that was interesting, but in the end pretty crappy. So the same movies, the same television shows, maybe a few made-for-3D things because they wanted to show you waterfalls or a forest or something, but ultimately it was watching television with a kind of fake depth. That was its one trick and it was pretty crappy. After watching it for a while, regardless of the technology, your eyes got tired.
And there's a good reason for that, by the way. It wasn't real 3D. You couldn't look around anything. All it was was stereo, and the stereo was made for a very specific interpupillary distance, the distance between your pupils. People's pupils are variable. And some people are wider, most people are in the middle, and then some people are very narrow. And only people that had almost exactly the IPD it was made for got a good experience. Everybody else got a really crappy experience.
VR is an utterly different situation. It's giving you a very, very different experience. VR gets better and better and better every year. VR is an infinitely-evolving ecosystem of totally different content. And so you can't compare the two.
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Seth Schiesel ( @SethSchiesel) is a contributing editor for Protocol focused on the business of video games and adjacent industries. He is a former editorial writer for The Boston Globe, entrepreneur and business reporter, technology writer and video game critic for The New York Times.