On 25th March Facebook announced the acquisition of virtual reality hardware developer Oculus VR. For those who think of virtual reality as a passing sci-fi fad from a bygone decade, the $2 billion purchase may be seen as a sign of Mark Zuckerberg hitting an early mid-life crisis. Why buy sports cars when you can buy start-ups?
Oculus, however, does have some very interesting technology, and Facebook has ambitions of drastically changing the way we interact on the internet.
Who is Oculus VR?
Palmer Luckey, a Zuckerbergian teenage tech wizard, was a collector of head-mounted displays (HMDs); things like Google Glass and the Virtual Boy. Luckey’s experiments in developing a new HMD of his own caught the attention of legendary game programmer John Carmack, who became the device’s first champion. Together they worked on the prototype of the “Oculus Rift” and demonstrated it for the first time at the 2012 E3 gaming expo.
Met with an enthusiastic response from game developers and journalists, Luckey and Carmack started a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of the first round of Oculus Rift developer kits; an early step on the road to making the device a commercially viable product. They set a goal of raising $250,000, but the campaign became so popular that they raised $2.4million; almost ten times the goal.
Less than two years later, those Kickstarter backers have now seen the start-up they supported sold to Facebook for $2 billion, and none of them will see a cent.
Reaction to the acquisition
Fans of Oculus VR were quick to express their shock. Customers cancelled their orders of the device and encouraged others to do the same. Software developers, ranging from internationally known game studios to individual hobbyists, withdrew support and cancelled their projects. The most prominent of these denouncements came from Markus Persson, creator of Minecraft (that’s the one with all the blocks that your kids never stop playing, along with 100 million more registered users).
In his public post Persson makes a case for virtual reality being a perfect fit for social media and online interaction. He talks about the possibility of conducting business meetings in a virtual 3D space, or watching a film in a digital recreation of a cinema with a friend who lives seven time zones away. However, his complaint is one shared by many of the acquisition’s detractors. Facebook is not the company he wanted to be at the tip of the spear of the VR revolution.
In the wake of this criticism, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey became active on the /r/Oculus subreddit, frequented by 25,000 subscribers. Luckey justified his decision to sell by stating that virtual reality is ready to move beyond its niche gaming audience and into the mainstream, but that it needed the right push. Facebook, he believes, are the right people to accelerate his vision and deliver “a better Oculus Rift with fewer compromises even faster than we anticipated.”
Luckey stuck around replying to comments throughout the evening on the day of the announcement, indicating that his newfound wealth has not yet pulled him out of the community he created.
How will virtual reality change social media?
In Zuckerberg’s announcement of the acquisition he talks about the power of Oculus VR’s technology to make you “feel like you’re actually present in another place with other people.” Though the buy-out was a surprise, connecting people in a more tangible, less keyboard-based way sounds like a very logical next step for Facebook.
The Facebook founder’s statement makes it clear that he doesn’t see virtual reality as a gimmick. Facebook has actively worked towards making mobile devices the dominant platform of today, and now they shift focus to making virtual reality the platform of tomorrow.
The draw of virtual reality is that ability to immerse you in an experience. You inhabit a space and see it through your own eyes as if you were there. When you sit at a desk and type, or tap on your phone, there are still several degrees of separation between you and the people you’re communicating with. Even video calls fail to sustain the illusion that you’re sharing a space with someone.
Let’s take a common situation that many of us encounter with today’s technology. You’re managing a Facebook page for a B2C brand, and customers post on your page with their questions and concerns. As a conscientious company, you have a team of people who look out for these posts and respond to them on behalf of the brand, hoping to solve customers’ problems and maintain their loyalty.
In a world where virtual reality is a key part of Facebook’s feature set, these conversations will have more in common with the interactions you experience when customers physically enter your place of business. You will design your virtual 3D space to best represent your company, just as you do now with a Facebook cover photo or the presentation of your brick and mortar stores and offices. Your VR goggle-wearing customer response team will have a physical presence in the space, made to your design and controlled by your staff’s own movements and commands.
Your customers, too, will have chosen their own 3D avatars and, this being the internet, they’ll likely be decorated in pictures of cats.
Social media professionals will be able to pay greater attention to body language, intonation, and warmth.
With these greater demands, however, will come a greater opportunity to establish the feelings you wish to instil in your customers and community.
Think of the difference between the feeling you get from an email conversation, and the feeling of sitting down with someone to meet in person. Isn’t it so much easier to gauge the way someone feels when you can see them in front of you? Virtual reality has the potential to replicate this for conversations that occur on opposite sides of the world.
From my own perspective as a gamer, I saw the Oculus Rift as an interesting gadget that probably wouldn’t amount to anything more than a novelty product for a niche audience. Now that Oculus is part of Facebook – a service with over a billion monthly active users – virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift have a real chance of becoming part of everyone’s daily lives.
For now it does sound far-fetched to speculate that in a few years we’ll all be sitting around wearing virtual reality goggles as we post on Facebook. However, you don’t have to go too far back to get to a time when it was unthinkable that we’d have access to the entirety of human knowledge on a palm-sized phone. It all sounds like Star Trek until it happens.