Recently Facebook caught everyone by surprise when it announced that it had just paid a staggering $2 billion to acquire Oculus Rift – developers of a virtual reality headset that has yet to come out of testing, although is available for purchase by the public.
Coming as it did in the wake of a $19 billion purchase of the messaging service WhatsApp, we might almost be forgiven for thinking that $2 billion is small change and perhaps it is to a global giant, but it does clearly indicate how potentially important Facebook considers virtual reality to be in the future of digital communications.
Back in the 1990s, the conviction that virtual reality was the clear path to the future would have been taken far more seriously. NASA and the military were quick to see benefits and have used VR for decades in training recruits in controlled environments where they can respond to different types of situations. For us consumers however, it was the gaming industry that looked set to be revolutionised by the new head-mounted displays. Twenty years later, they were still few and far between.
The problems with head-mounted displays became apparent almost immediately. Heavy, cumbersome, low resolution images due both to hardware limitations and available processing capacity all lead inevitably to disillusionment and a sense that while it held great promise, actual reality simply presented too many difficulties for the virtual to become what so many intriguing films showed us it might become.
Fast forward a few decades and things have changed, maybe even by enough that we can glimpse a new dawn for VR. Google, tackling the size and weight issues head-on, create Glass - an ultra-light weight wearable computer that resembles conventional eyeglasses. The negative reaction, largely from those not wearing them it must be noted, was remarkable and the term “glassholes” quickly entered the popular lexicon. A word specifically created to belittle early adopters as pretentious posers, from the same mind-set that 30 years ago predicted computers had no place in the home or at an office worker’s desk.
Despite all the hype and rhetoric on both sides of the fence, the second wave of “Glass Explorers” are queuing up to pay $1500 to test this newly emerging technology, and Google has just taken out a patent on cameras so tiny they can be placed onto contact lenses. Against this background, does the decision to buy the leading developer of a high-resolution head mounted display seem so unlikely?
While the Rift was designed with gaming in mind, it has applications far beyond and is capable of delivering the kind of immersive experience that a two-dimensional screen cannot hope to rival. “Zero Point” – the first movie shot for the Rift is gearing up for release, while plans to use large arrays of tiny networked cameras will enable sports events, theatre and concerts to be broadcast and enjoyed in ways we hadn’t previously thought possible or practical.
While it might be easy to dismiss notions of us all enjoying immersive virtual experiences in the future as optimistic wishful thinking, just remember how easy it was to dismiss the idea that we’d all own a computer, let alone that our phones would also become computers, twenty years ago. In such a future, control of the hardware platform will be crucial to be a dominant player in this market, and it looks like, Google and Facebook are positioning themselves to be just that.