Reality check on Facebook's Oculus shift

[commentary] Facebook says that its purchase of Oculus is a long bet on the future. And that wager on virtual reality is rooted in the actual reality of the social network's past and present.

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Facebook surely sees something for itself in Oculus Rift. Sarah Tew/CNET

Facebook's $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, developer of the Rift headset that has reset expectations of virtual reality, represents the third in a number of big-ticket pickups by the hugely popular social network, following its Instagram and WhatsApp deals. It's also Facebook's first move into hardware.

What does a business focused on social networking want with a gadget that, some would say, falls into one of the most antisocial technologies of all time? Facebook explained its purchase as a long-term bet on the future of computing, saying that it believes virtual reality will be the next wave after mobile.

But the underpinnings of Facebook's interest have more nuance, and some of the company's assertions are open to challenge. Let's start with the flak that Facebook has received regarding the antisocial nature of virtual reality. While there is some merit to the cliche that there is no complete substitute for in-person interaction, this disparaging characterization could be applied to nearly any kind of digital communication or even the telephone. Virtual reality can be as solitary as watching a movie alone -- or as social as a Second Life world.

Facebook and Oculus, however, are sure to seek development of a virtual world that is far more ambitious than Second Life. The Rift's first target applications, video games, have a long history of being social regardless of whether the other player is in the room or on the other side of the globe. Facebook, meanwhile, is already virtual reality in its own way.

Today's Facebook interactions may not have much 3D navigation associated with them, but Facebook is definitely a world unto itself. Many of its members distinguish between "real friends" and "Facebook friends," for example, and many people's status updates do not portray an accurate or complete picture of their lives. Facebook's investment in virtual reality is just a means to put another interface or interaction layer over an artificial world it has already created.

That said, Oculus is the anti-Glass. Facebook's purchase of Oculus provides a contrast to the infamous advanced technology initiative of its rival Google, which has been evolving Glass into a consumer product at a pace that makes even the Rift's evolution seem aggressive. Virtual reality, unlike augmented reality, requires blocking out the real world. It's a level of immersion that is not sustainable for prolonged periods, even worse than TV. It's unlikely that, as Facebook asserted, VR is the next wave after mobile. In some ways, it's a retreat from mobile.

Virtual reality, however, does provide another shot at the gaming mantle, one particularly well-suited to future generations of the "'ville" sorts of games from Zynga that marked its gaming heyday. Before the iOS App Store stole its thunder, Facebook was a king of casual social gaming. As the market shifted to mobile, Facebook lost its aggregation mantle to Apple and Google.

For years now, Facebook has talked about treating mobile first, but management knows it failed to translate its social leadership to mobile. Indeed, the biggest challenge Facebook will ultimately face with Oculus is that it requires a new -- if potentially more natural at some point -- mode of interaction. So far, Facebook has had a difficult time getting its users to accept different entrance points onto its platform. There's Facebook Home, for what it's worth, and the jury is still out on Facebook Paper.

Facebook will have to address the adaptability issues, fixing its reality before altering ours.

 

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