Facebook’s Oculus Buy Will Force A New Social Future

Editor’s note: Brett G. Durrett is the CEO of IMVU, the leader in 3D Social Chat, featuring the world’s largest catalog of virtual goods with over 16 million user-generated products.    

Some reacted to Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR less than enthusiastically, but the announcement is one of the most exciting opportunities for the future of “social VR” a future where virtual reality will help build stronger online interactions through more expressive communication and shared experiences.

The winner in social VR will start with the premise that relationships between people, their need for self expression and emotive communication is fundamental to the VR experience. Social VR isn’t just another take on virtual worlds — the “world” is arguably the least important component necessary to succeed. Many companies have attempted to build virtual worlds with the hope they would become a social environment. Of the few that survived, no virtual world can rightfully claim they have won at social.

Virtual-world technology is interesting and can deliver great experiences (especially in the context of a dedicated game) but the approach of place before people, or “if we build it, they will come,” has always under-delivered on the fundamental human desire to connect with other humans. While environments help set the context for the interactions between people, people must come before place.

Of course, virtual reality has been around in various forms for decades. On the 2013 Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, virtual reality is at the bottom of the “Trough of Disillusionment” and starting its climb up the “Slope of Enlightenment.” Facebook’s bold acquisition of Oculus VR doesn’t just validate that virtual reality has a future, it forces companies like Sony, Microsoft, Google and possibly Yahoo to think beyond the simple context of virtual reality for entertainment and contemplate how it will apply to our online relationships and social networks. This innovation has the potential to make online interactions deeper and more meaningful than we’ve ever known – a step function for communication platforms.

Winning at social VR will take a lot more than headset technology and high-end graphics. Much like virtual worlds missing the mark by putting place before people, many companies have taken the approach that near photo-realism is the pinnacle of avatar technology. The first problem with this approach is the “uncanny valley” hypothesis, which basically states that very close to human is actually worse for empathy than less close to human (the movie “The Polar Express” is a good example).

Another problem with the push for realism is the individual need for self-expression, which requires avatar customization beyond what most companies can deliver and often beyond reality (an animal, vegetable or dog toy). And, in a virtual context, realism isn’t actually best for conveying emotion; sometimes a more abstract presentation does a far better job at being expressive than something photo realistic (for a great overview of this read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics).

Critics of virtual reality point to additional challenges like the bulky hardware or VR being a solitary experience. This criticism is short-sighted, ignoring the advances that will undoubtedly come to both the hardware devices and our ability to create meaningful shared interactions.  The technology advances will help make VR non-obstructive, but the real breakthrough will come from delivering a human connection deeper and more meaningful than how we can connect online today. These are hard problems that will create amazing value as we solve them.

The need to solve so many challenges to truly deliver on the potential of social VR means great new opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. The winning solution will likely come from disciplines so diverse they might include psychology, athletics, theater, gaming, architecture, hardware design, fashion and many, many more. As of Tuesday, thousands of ideas went from lofty aspirations to being a path for changing the world.

While Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus VR has its skeptics, I am more excited than ever for how this is the start of social VR and the next evolution in how we connect with people online.

Image by Pan Xubin/Shutterstock