It's been nearly three years since Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) spent $1 billion on what was, at the time, little more than an up-and-coming photo-sharing site called Instagram. By many accounts, Facebook overpaid -- Instagram had been valued at just $500 million the week prior to the deal announcement. But today, the Instagram acquisition looks like an absolute steal. As noted in a recent article, one Wall Street analyst valued the site at $35 billion and said he expects the app to generate as much as $2.7 billion in incremental revenue this year.

Now look back at the spring of 2014, when Facebook once again made waves when it announced a $19 billion deal to bring the fast-growing WhatsApp messaging app in-house, along with another $2 billion deal for virtual reality, or VR, headset manufacturer, Oculus. Much like Instagram, monetizing WhatsApp isn't expected to add much in the way of revenues this year, or perhaps even next. As for Oculus' Rift VR solution, it turns out shareholders may not have to wait quite as long to see a return on this investment.

Timing is everything
This could be another banner year for Facebook as it takes the advertising wraps off Instagram and its more than 300 million monthly average users, or MAUs, and also introduces video spots across its social media platform. Each move represents a significant revenue opportunity, and together they should take Facebook's already-strong financials to a whole, new level. So where does Oculus come into play?

Gamers are chomping at the bit for Rift, and release date rumors have run rampant as a result. But as we learned with video ads and monetizing Instagram, Facebook isn't going to jump the gun. With that said, Rift could be hitting shelves as soon as this summer or in the fall, just in time for the all-important holiday shopping season.

We've heard similar Rift grumblings before, but there appears to be substance to the latest round of news. The rumor mill hit high gear at the end of last year when Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said, "We're now very close to day one, which will be the consumer launch." Iribe fueled the fire by adding several specs of the consumer version of Rift, including resolution, size, and color depth.

Source: Oculus

So, what has happened since Iribe ramped up speculation? Turns out, getting Rift out to the masses isn't being held up by issues with the hardware, as some had thought. The real issue is getting Rift dev kits into the hands of developers -- a whopping 10,000 more are en route now -- so that Rift comes complete with a laundry list of games and VR-related content at launch. Like video, Facebook is making certain that when Rift finds its way into the hands of consumers, it's ready to go. That should happen this year, assuming developers can make it happen.

What's it all mean?
Releasing Rift to the masses this fall will give investors and industry pundits a peek at what to expect in 2016 and beyond. Of course, booming holiday sales of Rift devices will also fuel the efforts of competitors, including behemoths like Samsung and Microsoft.

Samsung's VR solution, known as Gear, is designed for use with its new Galaxy Note 4. Interestingly enough, Gear was actually developed by Oculus -- its first foray into mobile VR. Though it may seem counter-intuitive to build a solution for the competition, Gear gave Oculus a chance to spread its mobile development wings, something Facebook intends for its own Rift headset down the road.

Not to be outdone, Microsoft is also rumored to be working on a VR solution for use with its Xbox gaming consoles. However, it appears Microsoft's Project Fortaleza isn't quite the immersive, full virtual reality experience of Rift but more of a combination of reality and virtual elements -- what VR pundits refer to as augmented reality. That's not to say Microsoft won't expand its VR efforts in the future to more directly compete with Oculus.

For Facebook investors, the launch of Rift later this year -- should it come to pass -- isn't likely to add much in the way of revenues in 2015. Holiday season or not, there's simply not enough time to sell millions of units, even at a rumored $200 price point, to impact Facebook's top line. Still, beyond serving as a good gauge of future sales, releasing Rift in 2015 will result in a return on Facebook's Oculus investment sooner rather than later.