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2017-01-17 16:17:08
Mark Zuckerberg, in Suit, Testifies in Oculus Intellectual Property Trial

DALLAS — Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook, has said virtual reality could be the next big thing in technology. While virtual reality hasn’t quite reached the mainstream, it has succeeded in landing Mr. Zuckerberg in the middle of a courtroom fight over who owns a crucial piece of the technology.

The dispute started two and a half years ago when a videogame publisher, ZeniMax Media, sued Oculus VR, a start-up behind a virtual reality headset, only months after Facebook announced that it would acquire Oculus for $2 billion. ZeniMax accused Oculus of stealing important elements of the technology that went into the creation of the headset, eventually including Facebook among the parties it was suing.

While fights over ownership of prominent technologies are common, this one defied some predictions by making it to a jury trial, which started in a federal court here in early January. On Tuesday, Mr. Zuckerberg made a rare appearance in court and was questioned about the Oculus deal. While pushing back on accusations that Oculus took technology that it didn’t own, Mr. Zuckerberg said it was his first time testifying in a courtroom.

“We are highly confident that Oculus products are built on Oculus technology,” said Mr. Zuckerberg, who wore a suit while testifying, instead of his regular uniform of a hoodie and jeans. “The idea that Oculus products are based on someone else’s technology is just wrong.”

Facebook could face hefty damages if it loses the suit, which could make its payoff from virtual reality recede further into the future. While virtual reality has excited people in the technology industry, most headsets, including those from Oculus, are not selling in big numbers because of high prices and limited content for them.

The core of ZeniMax’s case is that one of its former employees, John Carmack, shared ZeniMax virtual reality technology with Palmer Luckey, a founder of Oculus, during the early days of Oculus, technology for which ZeniMax was never compensated. Mr. Carmack, a game industry stalwart behind games like Doom, later joined Oculus.

A lawyer for ZeniMax used some of his time questioning Mr. Zuckerberg to bolster the company’s argument that Facebook rushed through its review of Oculus’s business when it was buying it, overlooking details about its dispute with ZeniMax.

But Mr. Zuckerberg also spent much of his time on the stand talking about his broader vision for virtual reality and how it has not arrived yet. He said that Facebook was conceived as a way to share people’s experiences through text and photographs and that virtual reality could come closer to a “perfect representation” of what is happening in people’s lives.

“From my perspective, nothing, other than VR, can capture this best,” he said.

Yet virtual reality still has a long way to go before it gets to that point, Mr. Zuckerberg said. “I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet,” he said. “It’s going to take five or 10 more years of development before we get to where we all want to go.”

Facebook has long been held up as an example of a company that is good at mergers and acquisitions. The company bought Instagram, the photo-sharing network, for roughly $1 billion in the spring of 2012, a princely sum at the time for a smartphone app with a small staff and no business plan to speak of. Two years later, Facebook shelled out 16 times that amount for WhatsApp, the mobile messaging start-up.

Facebook is typically lauded for its hands-off approach to acquiring companies. Instagram, WhatsApp and Oculus all occupy separate buildings on Facebook’s Menlo Park, Calif. campus. Aside from regular product updates and the sharing of Facebook’s powerful engineering resources, Facebook claims it stays out of the way of its portfolio companies.

In the time since its purchase, WhatsApp has more than doubled in size to more than a billion users, while Instagram topped 600 million monthly visitors in December. The latter has built a booming business atop its photo-sharing platform, with more than half a million businesses buying ads in the app. The company does not break out Instagram’s financial information specifically, but it has continually cited the app as a source for future revenue growth for Facebook.

Mr. Zuckerberg has faced legal challenges before. In 2006, he was deposed in a lawsuit filed by former classmates at Harvard, in which the plaintiffs claimed that Mr. Zuckerberg knowingly stole intellectual property to create his social network. That deposition, however, was taken behind closed doors; Mr. Zuckerberg settled the suit for a reported $65 million.

Unlike Facebook, ZeniMax is hardly a household name, but many of the games it publishes — Fallout and Elder Scrolls — have a passionate following among gamers. A lawyer for ZeniMax asked Mr. Zuckerberg about his reaction to ZeniMax’s lawsuit, which was filed not long after Facebook publicly announced its intention to buy Oculus.

“It is pretty common when you announce a big deal or do something that all kinds of people just kind of come out of the woodwork and claim that they just own some portion of the deal,” Mr. Zuckerberg said. “Like most people in the court, I’ve never even heard of ZeniMax before.”