Facebook's (NASDAQ:FB) purchase of virtual headset maker Oculus was a bold move, an aggressive bet on the future of technology. And the Oculus Rift has received nearly unanimous praise.
But while the tech seems promising, the price tag appears astronomical -- for $2 billion, Facebook is buying a technology that Sony (NYSE:SNE) was able to develop in-house for what was likely a fraction of the price.
Project Morpheus vs. Oculus Rift
To be fair, the products are still in their infancy, but both Sony's Project Morpheus and (now) Facebook's Rift appear to offer similar experiences. Both are head-mounted virtual reality goggles that project simulated images in front of the user's eyes. Aimed at the same market (video game players), Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus have been compared extensively.
Last week, prior to the Facebook acquisition, Engadget tried out the Rift against Sony's (then just unveiled) Project Morpheus. While the publication found Sony's technology to be a bit behind Oculus in terms of resolution and motion blur, it didn't find the experiences remarkably different. In some aspects, such as body tracking, Engadget actually gave Sony the edge:
One major change in Morpheus compared with other VR headsets is full-body tracking, which does legitimately add to the immersion effect. ... Vision blur ... is a much bigger problem on Morpheus than [Oculus Rift], making everything a bit muddier. ... Morpheus is both extremely promising and clearly not ready for prime time. But it's close!
What did Sony spend on Project Morpheus?
While we don't know the exact dollar figure that Sony spent developing Project Morpheus, it was likely much less than $2 billion. Sony, a company with more than $130 billion in assets, spent less than $6 billion in research and development last year. That still makes it one of the most aggressive R&D spenders in the world, but given the wide variety of Sony's products (tablets, smartphones, TVs, wearable technology, cameras, among many, many others) it seems unlikely that a third of this budget would've been diverted to its VR headset.
Moreover, Sony and Facebook are not alone in the segment. Microsoft is also said to be working on a rival virtual reality headset that should compete directly with Facebook's Oculus and Sony's Project Morpheus. Microsoft has yet to unveil its offering, but I would be shocked if it wasn't competitive.
Investors should applaud Facebook's aggressiveness, but the move amounts to the social network essentially buying its R&D. Famed short-seller Jim Chanos has been critical of this practice, arguing that companies that habitually acquire businesses for their technology, rather than expensing the R&D, are effectively overstating their earnings (via GuruFocus).
To be clear, Oculus' technology looks to be quite impressive, and it should open up new growth opportunities to Facebook. But with Sony and other major competitors on the verge of bringing similar products to market, it's a bit troubling that Facebook would have to overpay for the company, rather than just develop the technology in-house.
Many commentators criticized Facebook for spending $19 billion on WhatsApp, but with a user base in the hundreds of millions, the messaging app had a well-established advantage over its rivals. Oculus, on the other hand, has no such advantage. While the purchase price is notably smaller, Facebook may have overpaid more for Oculus than did it for WhatsApp.