Facebook Bought Oculus VR To Create The Metaverse, Or Why Angry Kickstarter Backers Need To Chill

Editor’s note: Dan Kaplan helps startups tell their stories. He’s done marketing for Twilio, Asana, and Salesforce and blogs about marketing, growth, and storytelling at Threadling.

There are many people out there who take a pessimistic view of Facebook. To them, Mark Zuckerberg is a huckster, out to sell us the snake oils of distraction and dopamine in exchange for our eyeballs and personal data.

I take the more optimistic view.

I do not believe Zuckerberg is building Facebook to offer the world’s advertisers a better way to target humanity with ads. No, giving advertisers this vaguely sinister power is just a means to an end — a way to create billions of dollars of value on the current Internet while bridging the gap to the Internet of the future.

In my mind, the future Facebook in Zuckerberg’s imagining is much grander, bolder and more futuristic. And what is that futuristic end? It has a lot to do with the Oculus Rift. Before I explain why, let’s talk about the metaverse.

The metaverse?

In the seminal piece of literary sci-fi that is Snow Crash, the author Neal Stephenson imagines a metaverse — a virtual reality world into which the technologists of a collapsed, balkanized America project their avatars.

At the genesis of Stephenson’s virtual reality world (explained briefly in the book), the avatars started off as low-fidelity versions of the people behind them. But as the technology progressed, they became more and more representative and life-like, until the avatars reached the point that they were essentially digital replicas of their owners, projected into the cyber realm.

In Neal Stephenson’s near-futuristic America, this metaverse was made possible by some wearable technology and a virtual reality headset.

The piece he missed was Facebook.

How Facebook can help us project ourselves into virtual reality

In one potential future, the identities we project into the metaverse will be fuzzy or even obscured. Here, our avatars will have little or nothing in common with our actual selves in the real world. They will range from pseudonymous constructions to total fantasies, like the socially-awkward straight male who plays the female dark elf seductress when he enters cyberspace.

In another potential future, the avatars we project into the metaverse will much more closely mirror our actual selves. They will look like us, move like us, reflect our personal mannerisms, and so on. When we socialize in this virtual reality, we will be among friends, just from anywhere in the world with high-speed bandwidth, at anytime we choose.

While it’s entirely possible (even likely) that both of these scenarios will co-exist, the latter future (where we project our real identities) will require some kind of authentic digital identity service that verifies that we are who we say we are, knows who we are friends with, and understands what we like and what we have in common with everyone else.

In other words, it will require something a lot like Facebook.

Social, local, and virtual

For all the hype (some deserved, some inflated) around the intersection of social, local and mobile, that trend will have nothing like the world-changing power at the intersection of social networks and virtual reality.

After the gaming industry has worked out the VR interface kinks (there are a lot) and figured out how to develop credible, fully immersive experiences in a virtual world, it will be time to create something far more profound: the feeling of being “present” with your friends, colleagues and interesting strangers in virtual space.

Virtual reality will be compelling because it will be free-form in ways actual reality can never be. Want to fly around the buildings of San Francisco with your girlfriend? No problem. The Grand Canyon? Sure. Want to have that board meeting in the world’s fanciest boardroom? How about a tropical beach instead?

It gets pretty deep.

Why Facebook spent $2 billion for Oculus VR

Facebook was late to the mobile game. Indeed, Facebook’s inability to control the platforms it relies on for mobile reach (Android and iOS) presents one of the biggest risks to its medium-term success.

This threat is the major reason that Facebook built Facebook Home: to do an end-run around Google and slowly-but-surely command the flow of attention and traffic on tons of Android devices.

Home hasn’t panned out.

But Zuckerberg is a visionary. He knows that smartphones and tablets are not the only interfaces of the future, and he’ll be damned if he misses the next boat.

If you haven’t experienced the feeling of presence in virtual reality, or can’t imagine what the implications of that feeling are, it’s easy to believe that virtual reality isn’t that next boat, that VR is just a bunch of techno-nonsense hype.

But it’s not. Feeling present in virtual reality–your mind believing it is there–is unlike anything else, and that feeling will change the world in all sorts of crazy ways.

As Michael Abrash of Valve points out, the display technology and processing power necessary to create the feeling of presence in VR is already here, and, though the Oculus Rift has a long way to go, it’s as close as anyone has got.

With Facebook’s money behind it, Oculus VR’s team will (likely) be able to nail their product faster and have an easier time bringing it to market at scale.

As Zuckerberg has promised, Oculus VR will start by revolutionizing games. But not too long after that, it will revolutionize digital social interaction, and after that, the world.

For all of this, $2 billion dollars for control of a virtual reality platform looks like a steal.

Image by agsandrew/Shutterstock