This week's biggest tech news has been impossible to miss: Facebook bought Oculus VR for $2 billion and the People of the Internet went all Chicken Little. Why the mass panic? Why the anger and confusion? What did Mark Zuckerberg do now?
First, the facts: Oculus VR created the Oculus Rift. Fueled by an eagerly-funded Kickstarter campaign, the Oculus is a head-mounted display that allows gamers to interact with games in a fully integrated way. This isn't a new experiment by any means — beta versions of this idea can be traced back to the '60s. But, unlike Nintendo's spectacularly doomed Virtual Boy ('95) and the Power Glove ('89), the Oculus Rift — alongside Sony's Project Morpheus — holds real potential. Finally, some say, virtual reality will rightfully inherit its place in the near future.
Then Zuckerberg came along and ruined everything, the Internet decided on Tuesday. By acquiring Oculus, Facebook had more or less hijacked the future of gaming, outraging early supporters of the VR company. Death threats were received and Minecraft's creator abandoned plans to work with the company. It's no secret that hardcore gamers, a proudly divergent bunch, are among the many groups of people that have problems with Zuckerberg, Facebook, and its questionable privacy control policies. From this perspective, Facebook buying Oculus is kind of like a a cult electronic musician signing to Interscope, or an amazing, little-known bookstore being bulldozed for a condo (or at least being forced to serve cronuts to survive). In other words: a shame for lovers of the local myth, but quite realistic in this economic climate. Bad for the soul, good for business. But, it could the Facebook/Oculus union also be leading to something much, much more?
Tech pundits, gaming journalists, and business analysts are jumping in to speculate. Perhaps Zuckerberg is trying to save the future of Facebook, (which was recently deemed the new Yahoo! by Business Insider for its failure to innovate), by steering it in an unexpected direction. Is he trying to jump in on what could become the first real virtual reality social network? Zuckerberg has certainly hinted at it: "After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside 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."
He's basically saying that the age of the selfie and #thisishappening hashtag will soon be obsolete — the new sharing will be inviting others into the moment with you, from anywhere in the world. If it thrives — and that's a big if — it would further actualize William Gibson's Neuromancer influential pre-Internet concept of cyberspace and especially the virtual metaverse from Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash. In fact, Oculus's new chief scientist, Michael Abrash, admits to being a huge Snow Crash fan.
In any case, this possibility, no matter how distant, marks a real Pandora's Box moment, and you certainly don't have to be a gaming or tech expert to have feelings about it. We have to be ready for anything; innovations are being developed all the time that even the savviest pundits can't fathom. In fact, the biggest leaps forward in innovation — the moments that truly change the fabric of our lives — often come seemingly out of the blue (see: anything Steve Jobs touched; Facebook itself). “Things always become obvious after the fact," Nassim Nicholas Taleb wrote in The Black Swan, which argues that it is the unexpected and extreme developments that shape us most. So yes, a virtual reality social network could definitely happen. But, whatever happens, it won't be what anyone speculates. (Forbes)