Will virtual reality be more of a sideshow than an attraction?
If the movie The Social Network is to be believed, early on in Facebook’s evolution, the company made the conscious choice to be “cool” by avoiding cheap advertising.
Well, these days, amidst reports that young people are abandoning Facebook, the dominant narrative around its most recent strategic moves is that the company is desperate to find relevance again. It should be noted, however, that the site recently replaced Google as the most trafficked service on the Internet.
Earlier this week, virtual reality platform maker Oculus succumbed to Facebook’s mudslide of cash and stock. After raising $75 million in December, bringing the total investment in the company to $92 million, the company took $2 billion off everyone’s social network. Not bad for three months’ work.
Facebook’s own Uncle Zuck, a.k.a. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, said (in a Facebook post, naturally) that the company would continue to focus on gaming with its new toy in the short term. During his call with investors, Uncle Zuck suggested that virtual reality could be “the most social platform ever” in the long term. Also, Facebook will be using the platform in its continuing push into advertising.
Not that any of that was much of secret or a surprise to anyone. Ever.
Immediately upon announcement, gaming forums on Reddit went straight into covering their hair with ashes and rending their clothes.
Within hours, the parody video had appeared. In just a few short years, you could wander a mall virtually with all of your Facebook friends. Obviously, what going to the mall was missing was everyone in your graduating class shoving their baby pictures in your face.
Presumably, all conversations, eye movements, and potentially thoughts will be tracked for advertising purposes.
The thing is, the parody doesn’t seem so far fetched in a way. Virtual reality is enjoying a renaissance of sorts as the current favorite technology from movies that we thought would have happened by now that now might actually happen. (I’d still be more excited about jet packs or flying cars.) And the initial uses seem strangely… boring.
One early application lets you go to the supermarket. Surely, the whole point of the Internet, robotics, and artificial intelligence—the ultimate goal of the towering edifice of technology that humankind has painstakingly constructed since the Enlightenment is to avoid having to go to the supermarket of all possible places. I mean, if we have to deal with Skynet AND still have to go to the damn Walmart, then WHAT is the fucking point?
Another application allows you to take a virtual tour of your hotel before you go. I mean, I love real estate porn as much as the next person, but I no matter how far down the abyss of apartments I can’t afford I go, I still never, ever look at the virtual tour.
For someone who is very happy to live a large portion of his life on the Internet, I have to say our VR future leaves me a little cold. I also went to film school and yet am completely uninterested in 3-D movies (with the notable exception of Captain EO). Partly, it’s because I have a delicate constitution and am pretty sure it would make me motion sick (be glad you’ve never tried to sleep next to me with a pea under the mattress). But really, it’s that the third dimension just doesn’t seem to add much. And it might even subtract.
Maybe, I’m right and VR, like 3-D, is going to be just a sideshow. A cute trick and a nice sideline for a niche audience.
But more likely, I’m a curmudgeonly jerk who’s wrong. When I’m living in my Matrix pod, living off an intravenous feed of Soylent, I’ll probably really enjoy every virtual open house I can get into, if only for the pixelated snack table.
Illustration by Jason Reed