You’ve probably heard by now that Facebook is moving forward with an acquisition of Occulus VR – what was a grassroots, community-driven project to develop a killer virtual reality system will now become part of what Zukerberg calls “The next generation communications platform.” Occulus makes the Occulus Rift, an immersive display that is head-worn. Immersion for the end user is total: Everything but the 1080p resolution image is blocked out, presenting you with a 90 degrees horizontal and 110 degrees vertical scene in 3D that, due to headtracking technology, allows the viewer to look anywhere into a 3D scene.
The technology is not much different from virtual reality systems of the past (we had several head-mounted devices to play with at the University of Utah as part of a student virtual reality research group I ran in 1993), but Palmer Luckey’s vision in founding the company was to utilize consumer advances in small displays (see my other blog posts) to develop a low-cost, far more compelling immersive display for the gaming community. Occulus VR users have been buying thousands of the company’s development kits, mostly to design immersive games, and there are even folks looking at producing immersive feature-length films that you would watch through the device.
The same types of folks that used to buy Nintendo Powergloves and hack them into controllers for their SGI workstations, are now thinking up cool new ways to make use of the Occulus Rift. Part of the energy coming from that community, however, was that it was an unencumbered, grassroots exploration of a new technical wild-west (read not driven by a large corporate agenda).
Understandably, this vibrant community was surprised and a little more than dismayed by the news. It is hard to understand how Facebook – a distraction-ware based advertising company (I call it like I see it), sees a need for exclusive access to virtual reality hardware. Will they tie it into the existing Facebook platform, or will it help drive the adoption of a more immersive next-gen form of social media? It’s a big bet that Facebook is placing on the device ($2 Billion) and with Sony already releasing a competitive platform at this year’s Game Developers Conference, it’s a bit fraught with risk.
Fundamentally, the goal of virtual reality is to immerse users in a virtual world that supplants our own existence – a goal that is fundamentally individualistic. After all, the immersive world I want may be dramatically different than yours. On the surface this is counter to the goal of “tying people together” something that Facebook has deemed important in the past.
I will wait and see, but I truly hope the vision of the virtual reality pioneers (Ivan Sutherland built the first head-mounted display at Utah in the 1960s!) isn’t supplanted by a head-worn social network engine whose primary goal is to drive ads. It’s hard enough to ignore ads at the edge of my Facebook page – imagine them as part of your immersive world.