Roughly six out of seven people in the world don’t use Facebook. Count me in that group of six. I’ve never been a fan of it. When I think of Facebook, I think of a club. Not a social group, like the Boy Scouts, but more of a trendy dance club. Nothing improves the mystique of a place like a velvet rope to keep out the goobers and riff raff. So, in its early days, you had to be a certain “type” of person to get into Facebook. It was the spot for young college kids — probably as self-important a group as there is. It became the place to see and be seen. To be on Facebook was to be on the cutting edge, part of an exclusive club of the movers and shakers of tomorrow.
Word got around and, like every exclusive club, more people wanted in. The quickest way to ruin the appeal of an exclusive club is a liberal door policy, but keeping people out is like leaving money on the table. So, if you’re smart, you open up another club across town with the same name and relax your admission standards a little. Once that club reaches capacity, you do the same thing in a different part of town and so on. Before you know it, not only do you have a town full of clubs you control brimming with people, but you’ve made it almost impossible for anyone else to start a club by controlling both mindshare and location.
That isn’t quite how it played out with Facebook, but the principles are the same. From its modest beginning as a online spot for college kids, it strategically opened up its service to more and more groups until it grew into the juggernaut it is today.
Now, Facebook is arguably the most important platform on the planet. At the root of its service is a data acquisition operation rivaled only by Google and the United States government. It mines the lives of over a billion people to give advertisers the information they need to sell them more products and services. In the process, it has often run roughshod over the privacy of its users. Facebook is a multi-billion dollar corporation built on the main premise of learning as much about your life — including your family, friends, passions, peeves, and habits — as possible. Some would claim the loss of some privacy is an acceptable trade-off for the service it provides. The ability to be effortlessly connected to friends past and present as well as family and anyone else as desired. Maybe so. But, as far as I’m concerned, Facebook is in the business of trading your identity for cold, hard cash.
So, when I found out that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s ironically enigmatic CEO, personally pulled the trigger on buying Oculus, maker of the stunning Rift virtual reality (VR) headset, I was a little upset — if upset means rending your garments and screaming to the heavens for vengeance. WHAT?!?! HOW COULD THIS HAVE HAPPENED?!
I was SO looking forward to buying an Oculus Rift.
If you’re a hardcore gamer like I am, you’ve salivated about the potential of virtual reality for a long time. The Rift is the answer to the fevered dreams of many a geek, the holy grail of gaming. It comes with the promise of putting the gamer IN the action rather than in front of it. If your idea of fun is barreling into bystanders, driving at speeds that would make you the object of a multi-state police chase in real life, jumping off of skyscrapers with nary a scratch, and killing enough people even John Woo would get cold sweats, the thought of doing it in virtual worlds makes you warm and tingly all over. Gaming is finally going to the next level.
Then along comes Facebook.
When it bought Oculus, I did what thousands of rabid fanboys all over the world did (very vocally) on social media. I vowed to never, EVER buy an Oculus Rift. C’mon, there is NO way I’d buy a product made by a company whose sole purpose is to sell my identity to advertisers.
Facebook is a monolith, a ridiculously pervasive data collection operation; imagine if it could CREATE the world in which you live? How much could it learn about you by not only understanding your relationships and preferences in the real world, but actually creating worlds in which it PROVIDES those things to you?
However, as with many things that spur self-righteousness, the reality is a lot more nuanced than that.
I’ll give Facebook credit: it is an extremely well-managed company and Mark Zuckerberg is an exceptionally savvy businessman. He looked beyond the world of gaming and realized virtual reality is more than just a gaming peripheral. It has the potential to completely change our interaction models. VR doesn’t just allow us to be in the game, it allows us to be ANYWHERE:
Imagine experiencing the beaches of Bora Bora or admiring the Mona Lisa in the Louvre in Paris;
Imagine raving all night in Ibiza or skiing down the slopes of the Swiss Alps;
Imagine attending a production of Madame Butterfly at La Scala in Milan or Swan Lake at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York;
Imagine soaring above the Serengeti on a safari unlike anything currently possible …
… in your underwear, from the comfort of your couch. Pretty soon you won’t have to imagine; it’s coming to you courtesy of VR.
The future implications of VR technology are profound. Virtual classrooms will bring state-of-the-art educational resources to millions around the world. Combined with robotic and drone technologies, it will not just allow us to experience different environments, but actually interact with them. Drones and robots will become our “avatars”, granting us super hero-like abilities — enhanced strength, speed, and even flight. More importantly, it will restore ability to those limited by disease or illness.
But one of its most exciting prospects goes well beyond that. What if you could “jump into” someone else’s life?
Imagine seeing the experience of a police officer, firefighter, or soldier in real time as if you were actually there. What if you could have jumped into Anderson Cooper’s experience in Iraq during the conflict and personally EXPERIENCED the chaos? Consider what it would be like to see through the eyes of a Formula 1 driver as he blasts down a track at 220 miles per hour. Think of seeing Earth through the eyes of an astronaut on the International Space Station.
Here’s where it gets even more interesting. The technology to best make such scenarios possible is also widely considered one of the most odious new developments in recent memory — Google Glass.
Yes, THAT Google Glass.
Sure, people hate Glass now, but the new paradigms for VR would benefit tremendously when coupled with technology that allows a bird’s eye view. Glass is designed to function as an everyday device and its potential pervasiveness makes a natural complement for VR.
The combination of the Oculus Rift and Google Glass could end up being one of the most important technology combinations in history. For instance, Rift + Glass could completely revolutionize journalism. Instead of most news being offered from the third person perspective, critical events can be experienced in the first person. Instead of just reading the news, we can be inside of it. What happens when people can not only get better information, but also better context and perspective?
What excites me about the Oculus Rift (and Sony’s Project Morpheus) is not just virtual reality, but EXTENDED reality. The ability for VR to extend our every day reality, allowing us to experience people, places, and events anywhere in the world from the comfort of our own homes has amazing potential. I’m anxiously looking forward to the day when virtual reality and extended reality become every day reality.
So, would I ever buy an Oculus Rift?
No. Absolutely not. Not in a million years. I would absolutely, positively NEVER buy one.
Just don’t quote me on that.