Your Virtual Future

Don't be alarmed—I'm delivering the traditional Friday technology post a day early, because I want to talk a bit about virtual reality (VR). Facebook just spent $2 billion to buy Oculus, a company that as of yet has essentially no revenue and no customers, since its first product, the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, is still in its development stages (game developers have models, but they haven't been sold to the public). Facebook thinks it's buying the future. Is it? And should you care? Well, Oculus itself may or may not be the future, but virtual reality is, for real this time. And yes, you should care.

It's reasonable to be skeptical, since we've been told that virtual reality is coming any day now since the mid-1980s or so. But now it really is around the corner. The hardware is getting there (the Oculus Rift has gotten the most press, but Sony is also developing its own version), and the technical problems (like the "lag" between moving your head and seeing the images move, which can make you nauseous) are on their way to being solved. It will be a few years before VR comes into its own—maybe 10, maybe 15, maybe more. But when it does it could be as big as the Internet itself.

Facebook wants "to start focusing on building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile," Mark Zuckerberg said on a conference call discussing the sale. "History suggests that there will be more platforms to come and that whoever builds and defines these will not only shape all the experiences that our industry builds, but also benefit financially and strategically." Virtual may not be the next platform; maybe it'll be the one after the next, or the one after that. But at some point, the technology will indeed mature, and when it does there will be an explosion in the virtual sector, one that is much more far-reaching—economically, socially, and in lots of other ways—than the rise of the current hot platform, mobile computing.

A comprehensive virtual arena will provide an almost limitless number of new experiences to have, applications for most kinds of businesses, new kinds (and large numbers) of jobs created, and of course, things to buy and sell. If you're having trouble imagining it, remember that 20 years ago, a lot of people couldn't understand why a business would want to have a web site. The possibilities are truly endless, and if all you think it will be is trying on clothes in a virtual Gap or having conference calls with avatars sitting around a table, you haven't thought about it enough. There's almost no area of contemporary life—work, entertainment, commerce, education, socializing, and yes, even politics—that won't be touched by it. Just as happened with the Internet, once the possibilities start to become real, millions of people will start applying their creativity to come up with new ways to configure and use it, many of which we can't yet foresee. The real question is how we're going to handle the societal upheaval that results.

Now, a caveat. A lot of science fiction stories have been written about somewhat dystopic futures in which VR causes people to abandon their meatspace lives, as their bodies and souls wither away. That's unlikely to happen. Advocates of video phones discovered that we don't necessarily want every form of communication to includes the greatest number of senses possible; it turns out that people liked not being seen when they talked, and there are many times when it's preferable to communicate via text or email, not having to look at or hear the other person being precisely the point. There will still be plenty of times when we don't want to do things virtually, and a lot of people are likely to reject the technology entirely, just as there are people today who make a conscious decision not to be online.

But it's coming. As Alexis Madrigal says, big tech companies like Facebook "need to grab some land in whatever big technology wave comes next," and there will eventually be billions and billions of dollars to be made in this realm.  

Now let me offer a postscript. There has already been plenty of backlash among Oculus Rift enthusiasts who see a sale to Facebook as selling out to The Man. This piece by Dean Putney in BoingBoing explains:

The problem with this deal is that Oculus' crowdfunded background and public support made it feel like the next big thing in tech could maybe, possibly be a movement powered by enthusiasts and hobbyists instead of venture capitalists and giant corporations. It would have been DEEPLY satisfying for a beloved Kickstarter to IPO and the best chance we've seen at that just vanished.

That sounds great, but it's pretty ridiculous to think that something with the potential of virtual reality could retain, in its entirety, some kind of indie spirit. Oculus may be crowdfunded, but the Rift is a piece of hardware. Ten years from now there will be five or ten other companies with competing models. Oculus Rift could well end up being the Netscape of virtual reality—the thing that helps bring the whole realm into the mainstream and then eventually becomes obsolete. But even if it ends up shaping the development of VR for decades, it will still end up being a global platform in which millions, maybe billions of people participate in all kinds of different ways. And that means that whether you like it or not, big corporations are going to be there, sucking up every dollar they can.

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