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| December 20, 2014

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Virtual Reality: The Future of Social Media

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These days, everyone takes social media with them wherever they go. But soon, social media will be taking you wherever you want to go.

Facebook announced on March 25 that it will be purchasing Oculus VR, a leading company in virtual reality technology, for $2 billion. The agreed upon price includes $400 million in cash and 23.1 million shares in Facebook stock, which is valued at $1.6 billion.

The implications of this purchase are huge. The Oculus Rift is widely hailed as the most immersive VR experience in existence.

Since its humble beginnings on Kickstarter in 2012, Oculus has sold over 75,000 developer kits, and permanently altered the landscape of the gaming industry before it’s even become commercially available.

Now it promises to do the same with social media.

Only a few hours after the initial announcement, Mark Zuckerberg and Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus VR, held an open conference call in which they explained the motivations behind the deal, and outlined their vision of the future of social media and virtual reality.

Zuckerberg referred to virtual reality as “the next major computing platform after mobile.” He explained that new platforms develop roughly every fifteen years, and that the acquisition of Oculus is a “long term bet on the future of computing.”

He sees Oculus as a platform for many other experiences besides gaming. “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures. This can change the way we communicate with our friends, families and colleagues. Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever,” Zuckerberg said.

While the majority of gamers, let alone non-gaming people, have yet to experience virtual reality, Zuckerberg and Iribe challenge the world to consider the idea of being anywhere one can think of in a virtual environment.

“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face… just by putting on goggles at home,” Zuckerberg said.

Iribe expressed excitement over the deal, saying “We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning.”

Iribe, along with co-founder Palmer Luckey, explained that the decision was primarily based around the cost and availability of hardware.

“We can do these higher minimum orders and these component relationships that for the most part only larger companies can do,” said Iribe.

“There are a lot of things we’ve had on our minds, there are things we wanted to do that weren’t economically viable for our consumer product. We’re going to be able to do those things now,” said Luckey.

He later posted on Reddit, saying “We can make huge investments in content. More news soon.”

However, not everyone is as excited about these prospects. The announcement garnered immediate backlashes on social media, blogs and websites. Kotaku.com assembled numerous tweets displaying initial reactions.

“I can’t wait to be disappointed in my older relatives’ stupid politics in immersive 3D,” said Gus Mastrapa (@Triphibian).

“Yesterday a photo of a decapitated woman showed up in my Facebook feed. Can’t wait to see that in 3D,” said Tracy King (@tkingdoll).

Many have expressed concern over Facebook’s propensity for targeted advertisements, and worry that these may ruin gaming experiences. Others wonder about Oculus’ original Kickstarter investors, and whether a lawsuit may be in the future.

Perhaps the most damaging backlash to have occurred so far came from Markus “Notch” Persson, the creator of Minecraft. Not long after the official announcement of the purchase, Persson took to Twitter.

“We were in talks about maybe bringing a version of Minecraft to Oculus. I just cancelled that deal. Facebook creeps me out,” said Persson.

He later expanded on these feelings in a blog post: “Don’t get me wrong, VR is not bad for social. In fact, I think social could become one of the biggest applications for VR. But I don’t want to work with social. I want to work with games. I definitely want to be a part of VR, but I will not work with Facebook. Their motives are too unclear and shifting, and they haven’t historically been a stable platform.”

Persson went on to mention recent announcements from both Sony and Microsoft about their own VR projects as alternatives to Oculus for a Minecraft virtual experience.

Many questions remain to be asked, much less answered. For example, what does this mean for Oculus’ collaboration with Valve? Back in January, Valve announced their partnership on the VR project, and Valve’s former VR lead engineer is now Oculus’ chief architect.

Further, Valve turned over hardware technology debuted at their Steam Dev Days to Oculus in order to further their research. David Hensley, a developer for Tripwire, described it over Twitter as “very much like a holodeck.” Presumably, Facebook now owns that technology. How will Valve react?

Will Facebook profiles be linked to online gaming profiles? Pictures from Facebook could be used to lend realistic detail to avatars, which have historically been rather cartoony. Conversely, physical data from motion tracking hardware like the Xbox Kinect could contradict misleadingly flattering or photoshopped images on Facebook.

If profiles are linked, will gamers be as likely to engage in crude and abusive behavior, considering a person’s identity and contact information of family, coworkers and employers will suddenly be easily available to other gamers?

Will this create more accountability for in-game actions, or will social media-based cyber bullying rise to new levels, like fully immersive 3D tea-bagging?

These questions, and many more, will hopefully be answered as the situation develops.

Some see fantastic visions of– pardon the oxymoronic phrasing– real-life virtual reality experiences, and are ecstatic over a foundation that practically guarantees its success. Others rage against seeing a beloved, crowdfunded, grass-roots startup sell out to a soulless corporation with a history of addictive mediocrity.

All feelings aside, the truth of the matter is that one day soon, the same device that will allow users to step inside a video game will also allow users to attend business meetings, visit friends and relatives separated by distance, and travel to faraway places without ever leaving one’s living room.

By David Thornton

Staff Writer

 

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