Digital opium set to drive Facebook
Oculus gained traction right from its initial crowd-sourcing Kickstarter campaign late 2012, when it received over ten times its original goal of USD250,000 funding to produce prototype development kits for software developers. It was acquired for a whopping USD2 billion, including USD400 million in cash and USD1.6 billion worth of Facebook stock.
The company is actively working on its second version of a development kit, DK2, using two 960×1080 pixels low persistence OLED displays (one per eye) to eliminate motion blur and judder, which the company claims could eliminate simulator sickness. The kit also includes positional head tracking and orientation tracking for better navigation through virtual worlds.
With this acquisition Zuckerberg makes a bold bet on the future of social networks, he certainly expects social networking to extend beyond Facebook’s seemingly simple screen-walls. Instead of just building more apps to help users share multimedia content online, Zuckerberg details his ambition to expand content-sharing to experience-sharing.
“Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures” he writes on his Facebook page.
In the fully immersive computer-generated environments that virtual reality headsets can deliver in 3D (choose from gaming, remote training, movie immersion or any other fake life scenario), the wearer can be induced to feel like he/she is actually present in another place with other people.
In this context, a Facebook wall could be replaced with a virtual room (for example a virtual concert-hall, a virtual football stadium or whatever scenery designed for private or public purposes) where connected people could have their avatars meet, pretty much like in networked games such as Electronic Arts’ The Sims or Linden Lab’s Second Life, the latter being Oculus-ready.
In fact, this hardware acquisition would only be more complete if the company did shell out a few extra millions to secure all the virtual infrastructures and the important gamer base that both The Sims and Second Life have nurtured over more than ten years of existence.
In his statement, Zuckerberg says his goal of making the world more open and connected is what drives him to explore new platforms such as this virtual reality (VR) headset. Immersive gaming will be first, he admits, but then Facebook could use Oculus as a platform for many other experiences, such as enabling wearers to enjoy a court side seat at a game, or to study in a virtual classroom with other students and teachers from all over the world.
Imagine that with low-cost stereoscopic cameras, new infrastructures could be developed at stadiums and public venues, creating new ticketing opportunities to cater for non-physically present spectators.
Going more intimate, consulting with a doctor face-to-face is another example put forward by Facebook’s founder.
A lot of the initial backers of Oculus’ Kickstarter campaign raised their concern about this acquisition, feeling betrayed by the hardware company.
Some fear that under Facebook’s direction, the VR headset could turn into yet another data-gathering device, hard-linked to evolved Facebook accounts, feeding more personal data and impressions than any other portable device.
Zuckerberg also hinted at possible advertising within the virtual decorum, users could buy virtual goods, very much like in the games previously mentioned. Pushing the concept a bit further, you could even think of experience-based advertising (integrate emotion sensing by monitoring heart-beat, temperature, heat, pupil dilatation or gaze detection).
Yes, Sony has just rolled out its Project Morpheus to pair with its PlayStation 4 gaming console, and Avegant’s Glyph has been similarly very successful with its kickstarter campaign (for an audio headset concept embedding two adjustable HD digital light projectors into a flip-down head-band).
So virtual reality is getting a lot of attention lately, and today’s low-power display and processing capabilities are certainly helping this new wave of products become affordable for mass deployment.
But virtual reality is not augmented reality like what Google glasses claims to offer.
In a virtual world, you disconnect completely from reality, even if the digital world recreates a tangible environment. So I would not see this as a step ahead of augmented reality, but rather as hardware-based digital confinement, not really something that leaves you open to the real world.
Is this going to remain a niche gamers’ market or could virtual reality (together with some augmented reality added to it) truly become the ubiquitous computing platform of the future, as Zuckerberg hopes? It may be that Oculus’ current implementation is only the first stage of what further integration could transform into sunglasses sized VR displays with a see-through option.
Think of tomorrow’s 2.5 billion smartphone users boasting a hands-free virtual reality/augmented reality combo dark glasses instead, digitally captive at home, yet feeling like living richer lives through highly addictive virtual worlds.
No need to experiment with the real life, the digital opium allows you to transform your living room into a palace, your bathtub into a deep blue lagoon if that’s your wish. Peer pressure will still be felt though, and adverts will be there enticing you to step up your game (your avatar’s appearance, your virtual belongings, access to new virtual places and people).
What’s next on the roadmap? Turn all social media users into electronic stimuli junkies?
Want to make this world more tangible? Take MIT’s inFORM dynamic shape display and build it up to a room size, you can now walk over endlessly reconfigurable staircases, touch “real instant walls” through infinite labyrinths, all locked into one small room.
But simpler, you can just disconnect from the hardware to live a real life, with real 3D grounds to climb upon, real challenges, real people to talk to.