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Dallas’ Carmack could be the hidden key to the Oculus VR acquisition

Facebook stunned the tech and gaming universes on Tuesday with their unexpected acquisition of startup Oculus VR for $2 billion US in cash and stock.

The reactions ranged from confused looks to angry cries from initial Kickstarter backers of the company. The most brutal reaction may have been that of Swedish developer Markus “Notch” Perrson, creator of the hyper-popular Minecraft, who announced the immediate cancellation of a version of that game that had been in talks for the Oculus Rift platform.

It’s not that the acquisition doesn’t make sense. Many in the tech press attested to that in the hours after the news broke following business hours on Friday. Skittish investors nonetheless pushed Facebook’s stock down nearly 7% on Wednesday, even though it’s hard to deny that there’s an appeal in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a virtual world with a Facebook logo stamped nearby.

The most important question is whether the Oculus Rift is realistic as a mass market device with the current demands of the technology.

This is where John Carmack comes into play. Oculus VR’s CTO, Carmack got his start as a Texas entrepreneur with legendary game development firm id Software, the creators of the Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein franchises. These franchises, under Carmack and the other visionaries at id in the 90s, largely created the shooter genre that is so popular and profitable for the gaming industry today.

It wasn’t just the games that made id and Carmack successful; it was the technology. id Tech’s various incarnations, starting with the Doom engine in 1993, made id a standout in the game community. It helped to usher in the era of third party engines that revolutionized the way games are made to this day. His steadfast belief in using graphics technology to create ever more incredible virtual worlds made him an obvious fit for virtual reality technology when it started to surface in 2012.

Carmack left id just four months ago, in November 2013, after becoming instrumental in the Oculus project helmed by founder Palmer Luckey. Carmack was an early believer and helped lend credibility to the project in advance of its successful bid for funding on Kickstarter, prior to there even being a company around the concept. Make no mistake about it, Oculus represents a vision of the future as seen by John Carmack, and visionaries are rarely happy to compromise their visions.

His drive and passion for the technology is hard to question and he himself is reportedly happy with the acquisition, saying it will avoid scaling problems for the technology via Twitter.

This is probably reason enough to back off the emotional doomsaying that many in the gaming community were swinging about on Tuesday and Wednesday. If Carmack doesn’t think his vision is compromised by Facebook’s ownership of the project, then it probably isn’t. Carmack has never been one to mince words and if he was unhappy, it’s unlikely he would still be the CTO.

But purity of vision is almost a paltry concern looking forward at Facebook’s aspirations for the device. Prior to Tuesday, the Oculus Rift was merely a burgeoning gaming platform, offering hardcore gamers a reasonably priced (by PC gaming standards) window into truly immersive worlds. Praise for those experiences have been nearly universal by those who have experienced the technology. Doubtless this potential is what caught the eye of Facebook and Zuckerberg.

Facebook would not spend $2 billion to acquire a company if all they saw in the technology’s future were amazing video game experiences.  This brings us to the cost curve proposition of the Oculus Rift or a future product of a similar nature as a mass market device.

As it currently stands, the initial consumer model of the device will likely retail for around $300 US, which itself will then require a powerful computer to generate the visuals it displays. This places it firmly in the realm of that hardcore gaming community which has the disposable funds and the hardware behind the display necessary for it to work as intended.

When those items have been gathered, the device is capable of truly stunning things. The pressing question is how quickly the cost curve can be bent to the level necessary for everyday users of Facebook to be interested in the device and the experiences it offers.

Realistically, the type of computer required and the display itself will need to be priced much lower than the expensive buy in needed today. Gamers will pay $300 for the head mounted display and the necessary upgrade costs to their PCs, but the average user of Facebook (a person who does not have a gaming PC) will not.

Zuckerburg has stated that there is a long-term plan for this “communication platform,” which may be needed for enough time for that progression to have occurred, but it’s a worthy question to ask by investors as to how long that will be.

John Carmack, like Mark Zuckerberg, is a visionary. Visionaries rarely, if ever, like to sacrifice that vision for something as mediocre as market realities. Progress and ambition often go hand in hand and, if the Oculus is to truly become a mass market product – something necessary to attain the vision of the future glimpsed in Facebook’s initial statement – this ambition will need to be harnessed to advance the kind of technology needed for that future.

If there’s one thing Carmack is good at, as he has shown time and again in the gaming community, it’s harnessing his own ambitions into something truly culture-defining. This is not a slam dunk acquisition. It is ambition – id – incarnate and not all great ideas come to fruition.

However, for something to succeed at all, it has to have ambition and drive behind it. Carmack has those qualities in spades and Facebook will need them to be in full force for this technology to make the splash it’s capable of. If they can make this product available to everyone at a reasonable price, it may well change the world in a way that merely games cannot.

Dan Smallwood is an avid technology enthusiast who graduated from the Michigan State University School of Journalism.