"Think about how clunky a Sinclair Spectrum, NES or Commodore 64 feels by today’s standards. Your kids will look at an iPad that way."*
Facebook just bought Oculus VR, the company responsible for my favourite new gadget. Reading this morning’s blogs and news stories about it, it seems everyone is having one of two reactions: 1) sadness and anger, if you’re an anti-corporate, privacy-obsessed hipster or 2) shock, if you’ve never heard of Oculus Rift or can’t see why a social network would want to buy a company making virtual reality headsets for hardcore gamers.
I’d admit to feeling a twang of no.1, but mostly my reaction was: 3) Good play, Zuckerberg, you’ve just secured Facebook’s future.
Games are the tip of the (Zucker)berg
We first reported on Oculus Rift soon after it launched on Kickstarter in September 2012. We then tried a prototype that December, stating that "The experience of floating through the virtual environment is so natural that it’s easy to forget that we're still sitting in an office chair rather than roving through an industrial landscape hunting zombies."
In January this year, I tried two new versions - Oculus Rift HD and the Crystal Cove prototype. I was blown away by what I saw. At that point I’d only seen it demoed with games, but the advances in movement tracking already made it clear just how effective the Rift could be when put to non-gaming uses. And that’s clearly what Zuckerberg has in mind for it.
His statement on the purchase says: "Our mission is to make the world more open and connected. For the past few years, this has mostly meant building mobile apps… 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."
Gaming, it seems, is safe: "Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to accelerate."
But Facebook has big – no, huge - plans elsewhere: "After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform."
Very, very post-PC
Facebook wants to be part of one possible post-mobile, very-very post-PC world. It wants a stake in the platforms that are going to make iPads and HTC One (M8)s feel like relics from a bygone era. It sees Oculus VR as its way of ensuring its relevance to the next generation of technology users, for whom entering a virtual teaching environment is as natural as jumping on a bus to school.
This thinking isn’t daft. Back in the real world, we’ve already seen Oculus Rift headsets used to experience a swap of gender, to go training with the England rugby team, to show interactive 360º movies, and more besides.
But the tech could go further. Instead of using Facebook to organise nights out, it could be the night out, providing the requisite connections and hardware for you to have a pint with chums in a virtual environment just about anywhere in the world (or even out of it).
Here’s hoping the rest of Total Recall is more fanciful.
One question: Could wearing VR headsets actually become a normal thing to do? It’ll certainly take time, but to write the idea off is short sighted. We didn’t used to be buried in our smartphones during romantic meals with our other halves. We didn’t ‘second screen’. I initially scoffed at the idea of anyone outside of gaming circles strapping on a Rift (partially because getting people to wear 3D glasses at home was a bridge too far). But having seen what it’s capable of, I’ve changed my mind.
If Zuckerberg wants Facebook to survive beyond the touchscreen years and way into the future, then Oculus Rift could be just what he needs. Fortunately for him, he had the cash lying around to buy it. It might just be the smartest move he’s made so far.
*Apologies to the originator of this thought, which I read on Twitter some time ago - I’ve tried to locate the tweet, and failed thusfar. I'll be very happy to credit you, so do let me know!