Yesterday, in a move that shocked the tech world, Facebook acquired virtual reality pioneer Oculus for $2 billion in cash and Facebook stock.
Mark Zuckerberg was as bullish and enthusiastic about the acquisition as you’d expect from a guy who just plunked down a huge sum on a company that has yet to release its first product to market:
Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. For the past few years, this has mostly meant building mobile apps that help you share with the people you care about. We have a lot more to do on mobile, but at this point we feel we're in a position where we can start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining, and personal experiences.
This is where Oculus comes in. They build virtual reality technology, like the Oculus Rift headset. When you put it on, you enter a completely immersive computer-generated environment, like a game or a movie scene or a place far away. The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you're actually present in another place with other people. People who try it say it's different from anything they've ever experienced in their lives. [Facebook]
It’s pretty clear that Facebook is diversifying in a bid to rely less heavily on its core social network, the popularity of which has fallen dramatically with teenagers. Buying WhatsApp and Instagram made the point clearly enough — Facebook the business is positioning itself to outlive Facebook the social network.
But this is the first real sign that Facebook is trying to outgrow social networking as we know it. Buying up other competing social networks is one thing. Throwing down billions of dollars on new technology is quite another.
Yes, Zuckerberg emphasized that buying Oculus aligns with his long-term goal to make the world more open and connected. What is new is that his plan now seems to involve people putting on virtual reality headsets and interacting corporeally in cyberspace. Users will almost literally be able to poke each other.
So is virtual reality really the future of online interaction? It’s still very difficult to say at this stage. My last experience of a virtual reality headset, I admit, was 18 years ago with Nintendo’s Virtual Boy, a 16-bit monochrome affair that was like a window into a bizarre alternate universe where everything's red and black. I liked my Game Boy a lot more. While the graphics were similarly primitive, it was portable, and had more and better games.
The Oculus Rift, of course, is a bit more advanced than the Virtual Boy. Graphics power has grown in leaps and bounds in the last two decades. Motion-controlled computer games — including Nintendo’s Wii and Microsoft’s Kinect — have gained mainstream acceptance and usage. And many of those who have tried the Rift (which is still in development) have found its virtual reality landscapes and motion-tracking impressive and convincing.
Other developers have also announced virtual reality projects, including Sony’s Project Morpheus peripheral for the Playstation 4.
But are these niche developments? Or do they have mass market appeal? For me, buying the latest generation virtual reality technology is inevitable, and long overdue. I’m a technophile, and I’ve grown up immersed in computing technology beginning with a Sega Master System. But it’s very hard to imagine people of my mother’s generation — who didn't grow up with computers, but today are happily using smartphones, tablets, and laptops — taking to virtual reality technology in significant numbers.
And it's not just a generational problem. There is ultimately something antisocial about wearing a bulky headset that cuts you off from the real world and immerses your senses in a virtual environment — it takes your standard screen-gazing to an uncomfortable extreme. That's not to say that it couldn't one day take off, so long as the technology continues to develop. But it will require a big shift in society’s attitude toward technology.
For now, people can virtually interact and play immersive games with their smartphone, tablet, laptop, or television. Like the Game Boy 20 years ago, smartphones and tablets are much lighter and more portable than a virtual reality headset, while already offering an array of software that allows you to listen to music, monitor your health, read maps, or browse the web. Augmented reality glasses like Google Glass — which are lot less intense than a virtual reality headset — also show promise. It is these platforms that will continue to dominate, at least for the next few years.
On the other hand, I do think that this is a smart, forward-looking gamble by Facebook. Perhaps in 10 years — with graphics and motion-control continuing to be refined, and with social norms regarding technology evolving — the large investments that the likes of Facebook and Sony are making have a chance of really paying off.