Facebook Buys A Virtual World

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Today, in a somewhat surprising move, Facebook purchased virtual reality company Oculus VR. The buy elicited visceral reactions from people dismayed that Oculus sold out so early to snarky comments about what Facebook might do with it.

First of all, any talk about the Facebook news feed appearing in virtual form is far too short-sighted. Will someone port the feed over to Oculus? Probably. But that’s not even close to the endgame here. Nor is Facebook’s chatter about gaming really what this is about. There will doubtless be a lot of gaming-focused development to come, and it makes little sense for Oculus to abandon that line of thought entirely.

But the gaming market, no matter how lucrative, isn’t the resting place here.

You might even see people talk about this being a “platform play,” but that, too, isn’t the half of it.

When Facebook launched, the landscape of computing wasn’t even a twinkle in anyone’s eyes yet. On the desktop, Facebook was a master of its own destiny, free to iterate and play with the web as much as it pleased. Yes, there were some limitations with regards to hardware or window sizes, but the world was generally its oyster.

Then along came mobile, upsetting the cart entirely. Facebook was caught a bit flat-footed and got busy offering up versions of its site on Android and iOS that have gotten generally better over the years — especially the past few. But while it was scrambling to make a product that people liked to use on their phones or tablets, the enormous tectonic plates of mobile — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google — were grinding on without them.

If Facebook wants to be a major Internet pillar, and I don’t doubt that’s what Mark Zuckerberg wants, then it is missing a major key component that all of its competitors have: A conduit.

Apple has iOS, Google has Android, Amazon has its fork of Android called FireOS, Microsoft has Windows Phone.

Facebook has….what?

Facebook, one of the most valuable companies in the world and an organization that aspires to “connect everyone” is left at the mercy of its competitors who own the conduits that they must travel on.

Want to create a custom experience on iOS? Play inside the sandbox. Care to create a “home” for Facebook users? You have to pay to install a default app on an Android phone and call it yours.

The mobile touch era has settled into its strata, and it’s unlikely that there will be a late player that cracks the code on a completely new OS — though let’s go ahead and leave a loophole here for Samsung’s eventual fork of Android.

I think Facebook is getting along fine on smartphones and tablets. And there’s still plenty of runway to take advantage of those opportunities. But buying Oculus illustrates foresight that goes beyond “let’s make some cool games” or “wouldn’t it be awesome to chat with friends on Messenger in VR.”

Facebook has purchased itself a hardware conduit that prepares it for the next generation of operating systems and interfaces.

This time, Facebook won’t be locked out. If, as many seem to feel is destined to happen, VR drives the next wave of human interface design and interaction, Facebook has just purchased an early pass to the show. This time around, Facebook will have a first-party conduit directly to its users.

And, if my line of thinking is correct then these new virtual interfaces will rest on top of existing operating systems both mobile and non-mobile. If you own the conduit to a virtual world that’s agnostic to the delivering platform, you’ve made them inconsequential.

While it’s still working in a space where we talk about how much time people spend on mobile versus desktops, Facebook is preparing for a world where we talk about how much time we spend in virtual reality versus “real” reality.

The latest version of the Rift headset contains much of the same hardware that’s in a mobile phone, plus a large “virtual” display. This kind of miniaturization and power was unthinkable a decade ago. Imagine how powerful and streamlined these network-connected displays will be 10 years from now. Couple that with a virtuality hosted in the cloud and you’ve got a radically new way of thinking about the ‘Internet’.

What happens when we work, socialize and play inside virtual realities for large portions of the day? You might not like this future — it may even disgust you — but it’s a very real possibility. Sure, it’s a ways off still — it may take decades for it to ever happen if it does. But that kind of long-term thinking is exactly what Google is doing with Glass and whatever eternity experiment it’s up to. With Oculus, Zuckerberg is putting pennies into the same basket.

If the next big breakthrough in computing is a set of world-spanning virtual realities that we slip in and out of by putting on a pair of glasses, Facebook just bought in cheap.

Image: composite with Shutterstock graphic