Mark Zuckerberg has cleared hurdle after hurdle in building Facebook (FB) from a small social media network into a global empire. From monetizing his platform to figuring out mobile growth to turning acquisitions into gold, Zuckerberg has checked off every box and made Facebook shareholders much richer in the progress.
Now we get to see what he can do with a gigantic set of goggles.
When Oculus founder Palmer Luckey hand-delivered the first Rift virtual reality set to Alaska this weekend, it was a ceremonial step forward for Facebook. The company -- which has grown to $330 billion on the power of social media -- is trying to expand its business into the world of hardware -- via the nearly untested waters of virtual reality, no less.
Some investors are frothing at the mouth over the possibilities of this brand-new field, but can the Oculus Rift really push FB shares higher going forward?
And if not, does Facebook still have a lucrative future without it?
What is the Oculus Rift? The Oculus Rift is the world's first true home virtual reality kit. While Alphabet (GOOG, GOOGL) and Samsung Electronics offer gear that allows you virtual reality capabilities via your smartphone, the Rift is the real, dedicated deal, and has one purpose only: an immersive virtual reality experience.
All you need is $599, a high-end PC and a love for video gaming.
Yes, at its launch, the Oculus Rift essentially is a video game console. "At launch, there are over 75 games available for Oculus Rift along with countless simulators and virtual reality exploration apps, with hundreds more titles confirmed and in development," says Forbes technology contributor Brad Moon.
But many others merely see gaming as the beginning.
"For now, Oculus Rift may be getting shipped out to aggressive, couch-bound gamers nationwide, but investors see its potential in the sports world for extra practice reps, or medical field for training, or in hospitals for treating neurological disorders," says Nicolas Martell, co-founder of daily financial newsletter MarketSnacks.
Zuckerberg himself sees the Rift as "a new communication platform," stressing that users one day will be able to share "not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."
An early entry into gaming merely puts Oculus on the map.
"Facebook's support is likely to be what eventually kicks VR and Oculus Rift into mainstream adoption," Moon says. "Facebook has the deep pockets to market the Oculus Rift, further cementing its lead, but more importantly it is the epicenter for what could be the killer app for VR: social media."
What will the Oculus Rift do for Facebook stock? Analysts project a $30 billion market for virtual reality by 2020. What this means for Facebook is very much up for debate, but one thing's for certain -- we won't find out this year.
Facebook itself admitted as much, with CFO Dave Wehner saying earlier this year, "It's early to be talking about large volume, so at this point I don't think we're giving a lot of color around supply chain and that sort of thing. It's not going to be material to our financials this year."
Still, plenty of pundits believe success will be found down the road, even if it's not right around the corner.
"Oculus Rift will likely be more of a 2017-18 event in terms of having a significant impact on Facebook's revenue because it isn't fully cooked yet," says Rob Enderle, technology analyst for Enderle Group. "It ships with one camera and an Xbox controller but needs two cameras and VR controllers that won't show up until later this year for a full experience. Then there will be months of working through and refining the content and accessories that are needed.
"But once fully cooked, this device should transform both gaming and social interaction over a distance and likely change the way we do a number of things, like distance learning and telemedicine," Enderle says.
Martell sees the long game, too.
"Don't expect virtual reality to make a real impact on Facebook's next earnings report," he says. "Zuckerberg isn't betting on the Oculus brand or the Rift headset -- he's focused on VR as a platform with a variety of applications as diverse as the random comments in your Facebook news feed."
However, hype doesn't always mean results. The technological landscape is littered with as many failures as successes. Even virtual reality itself has had a few chances, but never caught on.
Charles Sizemore, portfolio manager on Covestor and chief investment officer at Sizemore Capital Management, a registered investment advisor in Dallas, is among those who think virtual reality will stall again.
"Gamers might embrace it, but I don't see a lot of people watching movies on their couch wearing a face mask," he says. "A lot of the consumer innovations of recent years -- 3D television, curved screens, etc. -- have failed to make much of a splash. I expect this to be mostly a niche product."
But even if Oculus does sink, don't count Facebook out as dead money.
Facebook is great, goggles or not. Facebook is sitting near its all-time high following a 40 percent run over the past year, and has expanded its reach to more than 1 billion people on a hunk of rock that has just 3.3 billion Internet users. How much more can we expect Facebook to grow?
Plenty more, apparently.
"Facebook's stock has skyrocketed as its mobile platform has proved to be far more lucrative than expected (80 percent of its advertising revenue now comes from mobile)," says JJ Feldman, portfolio manager at Miracle Mile Advisors. "Even if Oculus fails to capture the gaming population, Facebook's stock should not suffer as the mobile expansion of Facebook's platform will outweigh the failed headset. In addition to that, Oculus' purchase price of $2 billion only accounts for about 0.6 percent of FB's market cap.
"Looking forward, Facebook has a rosy outlook," Feldman says. "Analysts expect that the company's revenue will double in the next two years as better ad targeting capabilities and a rising contribution from Instagram will boost the company's top line."
Yale Bock, a portfolio manager on Covestor and president of Y H & C, a registered investment advisor in Las Vegas, says Facebook has "attractive mobile assets in Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus," but notes a few challenges, including monetizing those assets in the future. Valuation is an issue, too.
"Right now, the price seems to be pretty prohibitive," he says. "The stock is fully priced, to say the least, so a buyer really has to believe in exponential growth of these emerging platforms."
Even a true Oculus bear thinks Facebook is chock full of upside.
"Facebook is the lone standout success story in social media," Sizemore says. "None of the other social media platforms have managed to monetize their user base like Facebook has. And the closest thing Facebook has to a true rival -- Twitter (TWTR) -- is still something of a niche player. Given that Facebook is only starting to find ways to monetize Instagram, the company should have a lot of healthy growth in front of it."
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