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Facebook's Oculus vision: Fact or fiction?

With the purchase of Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg is predicting that VR will usher in the next era of social networking, but as developers try to build these experiences, experts remain skeptical.

Josh Miller/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg's grand vision is that someday, perhaps 5 to 10 years from now, Facebook will bring you as close as humanly possible to the people and things you love when human contact and real-life experiences aren't viable options.

As Zuckerberg imagines it, the mode of transport will be the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality head-mounted display that places you in a fictional dimension that feels almost real.

In Zuck's mind, Rift could allow for a metaverse where virtual space converges with actual time so that fact and fiction become indistinguishable. In this envisioned universe, you'll find yourself watching a Lakers game live from courtside seats, trying on clothes at your favorite store, visiting your primary care physician, or gazing into the eyes of a loved one, when in actuality you're sitting at home alone, wearing an odd and giant, gogglelike contraption on your head.

The virtual reality daydream is so tangible to the Facebook chief that he's committed his company to spending as much as $2.3 billion on Oculus VR, a less than 2-year-old shop run by twentysomethings who specialize in virtual reality technology. Oculus makes the Rift, a headset that does exist, just in a half-baked stage, which means it's not anywhere near ready for consumer release. Hence, Facebook and Zuckerberg can't possibly know the Oculus Rift's true potential or how consumers will react to it.

The king of social networks is far from a seer when anticipating what comes next in consumer technologies. Mobile, the most obvious of trends, punched Facebook in the gut before the company was forced to adapt and make its network work just as well on smartphones as it does on desktops. So Zuckerberg is determined to be ahead of the curve going forward, and to do that he's backing a chimera of a promise that has evaded experts, scientists, and visionaries since the technology became the talk of educational circles more than two decades ago. He's throwing around fantasies that strike some as mere hallucinations.

Science fiction

"Virtually everything [Zuckerberg] said about the promise of VR is something that the VR community has been talking about for 25-plus years. Nothing is different," Gartner Research Director of Consumer Technologies Brian Blau told CNET.

Blau studied computer science and virtual reality in graduate school, and has tested nearly every head-mounted display in production, including both of the developer versions of the Oculus Rift. He's a believer in the promise of VR but says the technology just isn't there yet.

"A lot of people have, in good faith, tried to build great VR experiences, and it turns out to be really, really difficult."

What's so difficult exactly? The issue is one of optics, George Zachary, a partner at the firm Charles River Ventures, told CNET. Zachary's expertise in the field of VR dates back to 1989 when he worked for a company called VPL. There he helped coin the term "virtual reality" as well as build all of the original gear, including the first head-mounted display for consumers.

"If you project 3D images using a computer graphics pipeline, your brain will create the 3D image in your brain. Unfortunately, your eye is focused physically on the media that's directly in front of you, so the muscles of your eye will basically autofocus the eye on to that physical media," Zachary said. "The basic problem is that your brain is then trying to tell your eye to refocus at a far distance."

With the Oculus Rift, which Zachary has tried, your focus will oscillate between what your brain is telling you and what your physical senses are telling you, and that inability to focus on one thing results in people getting really bad headaches, he said.

Zuckerberg, it would seem, is trying to make fact out of something that is still very much science fiction.

"Zuck didn't do anybody any good by talking about the promise -- the hip, hype, and hope of virtual reality -- because all of us who have been doing it for a long time know that those arguments are promising, but they're hollow today," Blau said.

Zachary also recalls the hype of virtual reality, which he helped dream up 25 years ago. The notion of the metaverse used to be his marketing spiel at VPL, he said, but people would try a head-mounted display and lose interest after 15 to 30 minutes. They would tell Zachary, "If it looks like TV, it'd rather just watch TV."

A lot has changed since 1989, of course, but the headaches aren't going away.

"[Oculus] has figured out how to make the optics clear, but they haven't figured out this issue around your eye. I don't know how to solve that and I don't know of anyone else who knows how to solve that," Zachary said.

Practical realities of VR

That's not to say virtual reality is nothing but wishful thinking. The technology works well for constrained experiences -- say gaming or product design -- and has been a trusted ally of the military, which has funded much of the university research in the area for decades.

Suzuki uses an Oculus Rift driving experience at trade shows. Arch Virtual

Immersive augmented reality experiences do exist for the Oculus Rift today, and they're not just intricate games. Arch Virtual, a 7-year-old Madison, Wis., studio that specializes in building virtual experiences on the Web and now on Oculus Rift for clients, has constructed a number of VR adventures and nongame applications for business, educational, and architectural purposes.

Take, for instance, Arch Virtual's driving visualization for the Japanese carmaker Suzuki. The prototype application for the Oculus Rift, which works with a Logitech steering wheel, lets people race around the Himalayan mountains in a Suzuki vehicle. Suzuki, said Arch Virtual founder Jon Brouchoud, uses the VR experience at trade shows to give people a sense of how it feels to drive its cars.

A Suzuki VR app for the Oculus Rift. Arch Virtual

Arch Virtual also makes VR applications for superpractical purposes, say real estate developers and buyers who can put the Oculus Rift on and virtually walk around an entire building before construction even beings. And Brouchoud, who focuses on these nongame VR applications, believes that Zuckerberg's virtual social scenarios, say the example of viewing a live basketball game, are far from fiction.

"There are so many people who are developing video camera capturing systems that are fully spherical, immersive, and stereoscopic," Brouchoud told CNET. "We've only had the developer kit for less than a year, and the people who are already early innovators are creating things that put you in a place that you just put [on the Oculus Rift] and you feel like you are completely there."

Unlike many other developers, Brouchoud doesn't take issue with Facebook's interference. He believes in the Oculus founders and views Facebook's contribution as one of massive exposure, which can only be good for turning the technology into something consumers actually want.

Devin Itterman, co-developer of a social experience for Oculus Rift called Riftmax Theater, is cautiously optimistic about Facebook's decision to commandeer the VR movement. And, like Brouchard, he believes in the reality of Zuckerberg's metaverse.

"When you put [the Oculus Rift] on and you enter this virtual space, you have full head tracking...you feel that you're wearing some goggles, but you're actually present in a different physical space than you actually are [in]," Itterman said.

Riftmax Theater exists to dispute the notion that VR is an isolating, antisocial experience. Itterman and lead developer Michael Armstrong host events such as late-night style talk shows, karaoke parties, and discussion groups in the virtual theater, where as many as 30 others, cloaked in full body avatars, join in the virtual fun.

So the social proof is already here, perhaps, but the metaverse is still far off.

"I don't think we're going to see a fully established metaverse where you're doing doctors visits and things like that -- at least in the near term," he said. "I do believe it's coming, and it's probably inevitable, but we have a long, long way to get there."

Next-gen something

Everyone seems to agree that where fact and fiction meet is in the realm of virtual gaming. The question then is: Did Facebook spend its $2 billion wisely?

"I don't think so," Zachary said, "unless they're trying to become a next-gen gaming company."

So, if you'd like, suspend your disbelief and dream of a future when Zuckerberg will have found a magical solution to the optics challenge and will have invented a metaverse that consumers will want to live inside.

Or you might be better served with a dose of Zachary's reality: "To me this just seems like, our stock price is really inflated, so let's use it to buy some cool tech."