Like you and everyone else on the Internet, I was dumbstruck when Facebook's Zuckerberg announced that his company would be acquiring Oculus VR, the makers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, for $2 billion (£1.2 billion). The two companies are so utterly different, with paths so magnificently divergent, that it's hard to see the acquisition as anything more than the random whim of a CEO who was playing a billion-dollar game of Acquisitory Darts. Or perhaps Zuckerberg just enjoyed playing Doom as a child and thought, what's the point in being one of the world's richest people if you can't acquire your childhood idol, John Carmack?
Anyway, instead of writing something reactionary and vitriolic like every other journalist, I decided to sleep on it. Now, after a night of vivid fever dreams (and more scenes involving a topless Zuckerberg than I initially anticipated), I can tell you that I've seen the future of Facebook, Oculus Rift, and virtual reality – and it's pretty damn awesome.
First, it's important to remember that, in the short term, the Oculus Rift is unlikely to be negatively affected by this acquisition. According to Oculus VR co-founder Palmer Luckey, thanks to Facebook's additional resources, the Oculus Rift will come to market "with fewer compromises even faster than we anticipated." Luckey also says there won't be any weird Facebook tie-ins; if you want to use the Rift as a gaming headset, that option will still be available.
Longer-term, of course, the picture is a little murkier. Zuckerberg's post explaining the acquisition makes it clear that he's more interested in the non-gaming applications of virtual reality. "After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences ... This is really a new communication platform ... Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."
Second Second Life
Ultimately, I think Facebook's acquisition of Oculus VR is a very speculative bet on the future. Facebook knows that it rules the web right now, but things can change very, very quickly. Facebook showed great savviness when it caught the very rapid consumer shift to smartphones – and now it's trying to work out what the Next Big Thing will be. Instagram, WhatsApp, Oculus VR – these acquisitions all make sense, in that they could be disruptive to Facebook's position as the world's most important communications platform.
While you might just see the Oculus Rift as an interesting gaming peripheral, it might not always be so. In general, new technologies are adopted by the military, gaming, and sex industries first – and then eventually, as the tech becomes cheaper and more polished, they percolate down to the mass market. Right now, it's hard to imagine your mum wearing an Oculus Rift – but in five or 10 years, if virtual reality finally comes to fruition, then such a scenario becomes a whole lot more likely.
For me, it's easy to imagine a future Facebook where, instead of sitting in front of your PC dumbly clicking through pages and photos with your mouse, you sit back on the sofa, don your Oculus Rift, and walk around your friends' virtual reality homes. As you walk around the virtual space, your Liked movies would be under the TV, your Liked music would be on the hi-fi (which is linked to Spotify), and your Shared/Liked links would be spread out on the virtual coffee table. To look through someone's photos, you might pick up a virtual photo album.
I'm sure third parties, such as Zynga and King, would have a ball developing virtual reality versions of FarmVille and Candy Crush Saga. Visiting fan pages would be pretty awesome, too – perhaps Coca-Cola's Facebook page would be full of VR polar bears and happy Santa Clauses, and you'd be able to hang out with the VR versions of your favourite artists and celebrities too, of course.
And then, there are all the other benefits of advanced virtual reality – use cases that have been bandied around since the first VR setups back in the 1980s. Remote learning, virtual reality Skype calls, face-to-face doctor consultations from the comfort of your home – really, the possible applications for an advanced virtual reality system are endless and very exciting.
But of course, with Facebook's involvement, those applications won't only be endless and exciting – they'll make you fear for the future of society as well. As I've written about extensively in the past, both Facebook and Google are very much in the business of accumulating vast amounts of data, and then monetising it. For now, Facebook and Google are mostly limited to tracking your behaviour on the web – but with the advent of wearable computing, such as Glass and Oculus Rift, your real-world behaviour can also be tracked.
And so we finally reach the crux of the Facebook/Oculus story: The dichotomy of awesome, increasingly powerful wearable tech. On the one hand, it grants us with amazingly useful functionality and ubiquitous connectivity that really does change lives. On the other hand, it warmly invites corporate entities into our private lives. I am very, very excited about the future of VR, now that Facebook has signed on – but at the same time, I'm incredibly nervous about how closely linked we are becoming to our corporate overlords.
For more on this topic, see: Has Facebook's acquisition just killed the Oculus Rift stone dead?