Facebook goes virtual – a more immersive network?

November 11, 2014 : TECHFacebooktwittergoogle_plusredditlinkedinmail

Facebook goes virtual a more immersive network

The big news in the tech world this week has all been about Facebook and its surprise $2 billion (£1.2 billion) purchase of virtual reality (VR) firm headset maker Oculus. This is a bit of a departure for the social networking firm, whose recent acquisitions have a history of being mobile-focused firms that had the temerity to trespass on its own territory – witness Instagram and WhatsApp for two of the most high-profile examples.

So is Facebook really worried about the possibility of VR social networking, where you get to read your friends' descriptions of their breakfast on a literal virtual wall and make that ten thousandth hour of Farmville that more immersive by putting you in the fields? Or, more likely, is the firm looking to branch out and experiment with new applications and ways of interacting with tech that use the Oculus Rift headset?

Oculus Rift? Wasn't he one of the Transformers?

Unless you're a serious gamer, the rise of Oculus and its Rift headset over the last couple of years might have passed you by. But it's been creating huge excitement among this crowd for a while now with its huge promises of more immersive gaming though its motion-sensitive technology.

It works by the user placing a goggle-like headset over their eyes, which contains a couple of displays – one for each eye that creates the illusion of a 3D image that fills the user's field of vision. This therefore tricks them into thinking they're actually in the middle of the game, rather than just watching it on a screen.

Haven't I heard this before? 

Probably, yes. VR technology is an idea that's been around for decades, and if you were a fan of Tomorrow's World in the 80s, the chances are you heard it mentioned then as the next big thing. But that was then and this is now. 

As well as much-improved graphics and improvements in materials that means it no longer feels like you have a bowling ball strapped to your forehead, where the Rift really excels is its use of motion-sensors. This means that if you turn your head while wearing it, the display changes to reflect that instantly, so you really can explore the world in front of you as if you were there.

Sounds impressive

Yes, and it's impressed a lot of people. The Oculus Rift was one of the stars of this year's Consumer Electronics Show, and its potential has been recognised for a while – so much so that it convinced thousands of ordinary people to pitch in for the development costs and get it off the ground.

The Oculus Rift actually started life back in 2012 on US crowdfunding website Kickstarter, which invited wannabe tech investors to chip in. A $10 investment got you a polite letter and a warm feeling of having made a contribution, while if you wrote a virtual cheque for $5,000, you got a development version of the hardware and a chance to visit the team's headquarters to check out their progression person. And a T-shirt.

Oculus aimed to raise $250,000 through this effort, but such was the excitement over the promised new era of gaming, eager consumers shelled out almost ten times that amount.

So they'll be well-rewarded with this deal?

Actually, no, that's not how Kickstarter works. The online backers may have put money into Oculus, but they weren't getting a stake in the company in return. Most users of Kickstarter know this but, as you'd expect, there are some who've been less than happy with the idea of funding a Facebook acquisition.

They don't like Facebook?

Apparently not. The social network has had its fair share of critics over the last few years, with concerns about privacy and how the company uses the vast amounts of information they hand over frequent concerns. One high-profile game developer, Markus Persson – creator of the hugely popular Minecraft game – even said he'd ditched plans to bring the title to the Rift, saying on Twitter: "Facebook creeps me out".

Still, while the reaction of some hardcore gamers has been less than enthusiastic, with even Oculus admitting it was surprised by the strength of feeling, the deal is done and Oculus has been on the offensive to convince doubters of the benefits of the deal.

So what are they then?

Apart from promising to make the technology cheaper and better than it would otherwise have been, Facebook envisages a future where VR is at the heart of how we communicate, with founder of the firm Mark Zuckerberg describing it as the "most social platform ever", adding it will "change the way we work, play and communicate".

Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus, added: "We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning."

One thing that's for sure is Facebook has big plans for the Oculus Rift that aim to take it far beyond a niche gaming accessory. So perhaps in the coming years, we'll all be wearing VR headsets when we go online to check in with our friends.

This entry was posted in TECH and tagged on by sarahstooks
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