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Summary:

Facebook spending $2 billion to buy Oculus Rift may disappoint gamers, but I think it should give anyone who likes interacting with people in real life a bit of a pause.

Oculus Rift Facebook image

Has the future of human-computer interfaces taken a wrong turn?

Here I am, looking at the rise of connectivity in everything and the rise on contextual intelligence apparent in services like Google Now, hoping that I can stop spending my days starting at a tiny screen and live a life aided by technology as opposed to immersed in it. But then I learned that Facebook is planning to pay $2 billion for Oculus VR, the virtual reality gaming headset maker, and read what founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his timeline about the deal:

After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side 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 in your home.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

The internet has long been a way to bridge distance. Starting with email and leading to services like Skype or FaceTime, we’ve been able to add immediacy and amazing amounts of context to our conversations and interaction with people far away with a click of a button. My younger brother learned Mandarin from someone in China using Skype.

An extension of today’s tech or a transition?

Adding virtual reality to this equation with a headset doesn’t feel like it’s a new communications platform. It feels like an extension of what we have today, only with avatars as opposed to some type of 360-degree live streaming. I’ve experienced a few minutes of a chemistry class designed for kids using the Oculus Rift with a Leap Motion gesture controller taped to the top, and it was immersive and neat, but it also was nothing like real life.

Every object and interaction had to be coded, and the effort to render an entire chemistry classroom realistic meant that the version felt a bit flat. The designers explained that they want to let people in the virtual classroom get up and go to a shelf to pick up a book, and then be able to read it in the virtual world, but that was a ways off. Without some type of hyperlink technology there wasn’t a way to bring in an entire book and let someone read it easily.

So when Zuckerberg writes about being courtside at a game or consulting with a doctor, is he excited about virtual reality or being able to display all aspects of actual reality? But more important, is he envisioning a world that looks more like Minority Report, where the technology is in your face (or on it) at all times and you’re constantly tuned into screens?

Screens or things?

My hope is that instead of using technology to map our physical world into some kind of Facebook-generated virtual world, we use technology to be able to escape the virtual world. Using context and connected devices, we’d know when we need to turn our attention online because something in our physical environment will let us know. It could be as simple as your watch vibrating when you get an important email or having your desk give you a subtle up and down motion if you’ve been sitting at it for too long.

Instead of Minority Report, we end up with a world as envisioned in Her, where the technology is still impressive, but it also can fade into the background so people can lead lives where they communicate face-to-face in the real world. Or perhaps I’m old, and people’s normal lives are evolving to treat virtual interactions as highly as real-world ones.

In that case, offering an immersive and social experience via virtual reality makes sense, although I would mourn having my eyeballs glued to a screen for even more of my day. After missing the boat on mobile, Zuckerberg clearly sees a future in this platform that’s worth gambling on, but I feel that if he’s right, we’ll have lost a bit of our humanity.

  1. I couldn’t agree more! I have the same feelings.

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  2. Becky Torbochkin Tuesday, March 25, 2014

    The rise of augmented reality is just behind virtual reality, and it’s important to think about them both together. Virtual reality can make it so I can hang out with my best friend across the continent like we are both in the same room – that’s new and awesome! Augmented reality has all kinds of other opportunities for cool interactions in real life – like easier directions to get to that party of my friends that do live in the same city as me. It’s a brave new world.

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  3. Facebook’s goal, now and always, is to increase engagement metrics in the service of ad revenue. A more addictive platform is a more successful one, in this; thus, we have Facebook owning a VR platform that it will try to make as addictive as possible. With growing inequality and alienation all around us, is it really time for a more perfect escapism? VR may be something more in the hands of some, but in Facebook’s control, we can guess its fate.

    We already have the tools to organize, coordinate, and connect. Whatever Facebook wants to do with this may be marketed as some kind of wonderful tool for human connection, but I suspect that in 9 cases out of 10, it will be an aggressively monetized form of human withdrawal. Props to Minecraft’s Notch for cancelling Oculus Minecraft immediately. Minecraft is fun – not a replacement for reality.

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  4. Thank you Stacey,

    My sentiments exactly. I’m hoping contextual intelligence will be the next big thing. This will extend more than 1/2 a century of reducing the I/O burden of computing.

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  5. Well don’t worry. Zuckerberg’s fantasies aren’t coming to fruition anytime soon. He sounds like the people that said we’d all have personal helicopters by the year 2000 and that we’d press a button and out would come our home cooked meal ala the Jetsons.

    It is still debatable on whether Oculus will be a great gaming platform or not. Everyone who has tried it says it is cool, but there is a difference between a cool tech demo and a new way of doing things. And a difference between something that is fun to use once in awhile compared to something that you’d use on a more regular basis.

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  6. Yes I think we must push back against these companies who would envelope us in their house of mirrors – though admittedly a house with a veneer of human interaction – and then commercialize it back to us, and instead automate the hell out of it all and then push it to the background so we can write poetry and live and love live and in the flesh.

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  7. I’m getting a little tired of hearing the whole melodramatic “losing our humanity” thing over and over. And you know the discussion is going nowhere when it is based on Hollywood movies. Will we get Her or will we get Minority Report?

    Definitely neither.

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