sad elephant

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

“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,” wrote one commenter on Oculus’s Kickstarter page.

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 still 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 important items down 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 has been 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 that my only consistent objective 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 have 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 Rift. Facebook just bought Oculus for two billion dollars. He wrote a note on Reddit trying to explain why this was a good idea — there are at least 2 billion reasons.

Reddit’s up in arms. Judging by many of the comments, the people who lavishly crowdfunded the Kickstarter for the virtual reality project, to the tune of two million dollars back in 2012, are up in arms too.

This says less about Oculus and more about Kickstarting, in general. 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 Giant Bomb News, “Backer. That’s a problematic term. It sounds too much like investor. It implies more control than what Kickstarter actually offers.” (Read the whole piece; it’s great!)

Sometimes this works. You get your magical fly swatter from the future without a hitch, and everyone goes home happy. Sometimes, this 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 in something without any of the perks. You’re, as Klepek notes, emotionally invested. You paid money. You had feelings. That seems like an investment. Where’s your payoff?

But it’s all in the fine print. You get perks, but no say. You give people your money so that they will, you hope, make you things. “You hope” being the key phrase. But there is no guarantee that they will make the things in question, and you have no equity. The only virtual reality experience you are guaranteed is the one where you imagine that you are going to be compensated in some way for being an enthusiastic early supporter of the project.

It’s the same problem Facebook has, to a degree, 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 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, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.