Those who have tried virtual reality (VR) attest to the intense immersive experience the technology offers. Products such as the Oculus Rift headset and the HTC Vive have excited game developer as they open new possibilities to how video games can be played.
Last summer I experienced VR via an Oculus Rift at a friend’s house and I can confirm that the VR hype is real; the gaming experience was absolutely sublime. Playing Robo Recall was the closest I will ever be to fulfilling my boyhood fantasies of shooting evil robots, dodging bullets, and being a cyberpunk badass. Robo Recall falls into the popular first-person shooter genre of games, but the use of VR gives a whole new dimension to the term “first-person.” To look around, I had to move my head up and down, left and right. To aim, I had to hold up my arm and look down the sights of my gun. To switch between my pistol and my shotgun, instead of tapping the “e” key like in every other shooter, I actually had to physically holster my pistol on my hip and draw my shotgun from my back. The game introduced other ridiculous game elements such as grabbing and throwing the evil robots, and catching bullets as they fly at your face and throwing them back at your assailants
VR seems like the next paradigm shift in gaming; so then why did Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of a social media platform, decide to buy Oculus, the main pioneer of consumer VR? The man doesn’t seem like a hardcore gamer.
While gaming was Oculus’s original focus, Zuckerberg thinks that VR can turn into a valuable communication tool. When he announced the $2 billion acquisition on Facebook on March 25, 2014, he listed sitting court side at a game, studying with teachers across the globe, and consulting doctors face-to-face from miles away as potential experiences one can possibly have with a VR headset. His goals are grand; he wants to see one billion users on VR in the not so distant future. For sure a large chunk of those users will be using the technology as a form of escapism into games and dreamscapes but Facebook truly believes that VR will facilitate its mission of promoting social connections.
Facebook dreams that one day basic social interaction on the platform such as phone calls, video calls, and writing on people’s walls (imagine writing on an actual wall in VR) will be done with avatars in a virtual setting. The company believes that social interaction via VR an be both fluid and meaningful and it is currently working on a software platform called Spaces in which these avatars can interact with each other, like whatever these two gentlemen are doing here:
(Right now it looks a little like the game The Sims and not in a good way, maybe entering uncanny valley)
Facebook hopes that interactions within these Spaces can be a fulfilling means of social interaction with friends and family when of course, physical interaction is out of reach. The company is also working on an app called Venues in which users can watch live concerts, shows, sports, and premiers of movies with their friends using VR.
Interestingly, an initial experiment with VR by Facebook has shown that while VR can be used to communicate with friends and family, it can also be used to forge new friendships. In the experiment, a sample of 60 participles with zero to little VR experience were paired with a total stranger to engage in a conversation but half of those pairs were having a conversation in Facebook’s virtual setting (a train car) while the other half spoke face to face. Facebook teamed up with Neurons Inc. to analyze brain activity during the conversations and they found that those who communicated over VR were at ease. The VR group showed positive motivation overall and were kept within optimal cognitive effort. 93% of the VR group said that they liked the other person. The results were especially positive for those who consider themselves introverts with 83% of them saying they wanted to be friends with the other person while 57% of extroverts said they wanted to be friends. Those subjected to VR also reported that they were more at ease with sharing more personal information. While this is just one experiment (and a biased one too), its results show that VR could possibly have mass appeal and be used to meet new people.
Despite all the ambition and hope for social VR, adoption have been slow. It has almost been four years since Facebook acquired Oculus and the progress is basically unnoticeable unless you pay close attention. Social VR is not going to reach one billion users unless Facebook overcomes a few technological and social hurdles. With phone and video calls, we figured out how to record and transmit voice and video to enhance communication but for VR we need to figure out how to record and transmit body language accurately, which has proven to be daunting a technical challenge. Getting body language right is crucial to the success of VR since it plays such an important role in communication; body language is so intuitive, universal, and powerful that even babies are able to pick up on it. On another front, attitudes toward VR is not exactly were Facebook wants it to be. Some people still regard VR as only an expensive niche gaming platform or, at worst, a new way to isolate ourselves further. Recently social VR faced its first PR fallout when Mark Zuckerberg tried to demonstrate that VR can used to spread awareness of natural disasters and other humanitarian issues. Viewers saw a cartoon version of Mark Zuckerberg and Rachel Franklin, the chief of social VR, bobble around the hurricane torn landscape of Puerto Rico. The demo did not sit well with viewers. The Youtube comments for the teaser trailer of Facebook Spaces is overwhelmingly negative as well.
(When South Park satirizes your technology, you know things aren’t going well.)
In the face of these challenges Mark Zuckerberg is not likely to back down from his ambitions. Earlier this year he testified that Facebook will have to invest $3 billion dollars to make his VR vision a reality. Back in 2014, Facebook made the call that the next big thing in social networks will be VR. If the technology ever hits the mainstream, Facebook wants to dominate it all, a one stop shop for all social VR. That is why the company bought Oculus and given Zuckerberg’s previous success, it’s probably going to happen eventually.
What do you think? I’d love to know your thoughts.