Future Tense

The Antisocial Network

Facebook managed to find the one electronic device more solipsistic than Google Glass.

A young woman uses the Oculus Rift.
A highly social being.

Courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin/Flickr

Imagine people being social.

Are you imagining them standing around talking to one another? You’re not thinking social enough. Imagine them being even more social.

OK, good. You should now be imagining them reclining separately on chairs and couches, their entire faces covered with giant virtual-reality screens, so that each person is utterly immersed in her own private, imaginary world.

Wait, is that not what you were imagining? Well, that’s strange. Because Facebook just bought Oculus VR, maker of just such a virtual-reality headset, and Mark Zuckerberg said it has a chance to be “the most social platform ever.” No, really, that is what he said.

“By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with people in your life,” the Facebook CEO added in a conference call explaining the $2 billion deal. “Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

By “friends,” I assume Zuckerberg means actual, human friends, not Facebook friends, or imaginary friends. But it’s hard to say for sure, and maybe it doesn’t matter: Virtual reality is about blurring those lines. It’s about making the online world as compelling and immediate as the meatspace—if not more so.

Here’s Oculus co-founder and CEO Brendan Iribe describing the Oculus Rift’s appeal: “When you truly feel in virtual reality like you’re actually present in another space, and you look around and your brain is completely convinced—it’s comfortable, and it’s OK, but it’s a new and impossible place—something fundamental changes and you start to realize how big this can be. If you can see somebody else, if you can look at them, and your brain believes they’re actually right there in front of you, not just in a window or a 2-D screen … you get the goose bumps.”

What does that have to do with Facebook? Well, the social network’s success has been fueled in part by the staggering amount of time and energy its users pour into the site—nearly two hours per week, on average. Yet it’s inevitable that the excitement of sifting through a news feed full of static photos, Web links, and text updates will wear off over time.

Oculus gives Facebook a chance to insert itself into what it believes may be the most immersive communication experience yet invented. Never mind reading your friend’s status update—imagine putting on your virtual-reality device and stepping into their world to speak with them directly. Or challenging them to a virtual round of golf at a pixel-perfect re-creation of Pebble Beach. Or playing Harry Potter to their Hermione and battling dark wizards in the halls of a virtual Hogwarts. Forget spending 17 minutes on Facebook—you might never want to leave.

Gaming with friends is only one of the more obvious short-term uses for an Oculus device. Longer term, Zuckerberg said, the plan is to turn it into a platform that would allow you to do anything from shopping at a virtual store to consulting with your doctor to taking a courtside seat at a basketball game—all without leaving your couch.

This has all been promised before, of course, and the promise of virtual reality fizzled so badly that it became almost a punch line. But the early reviews of Oculus Rift prototypes suggest that the technology of 2015 may finally be advanced enough to justify the hype of 1995.

Zuckerberg is bullish on it. He compared the status of Oculus headsets today to that of smartphones in 2003. “There are not many things out there that are candidates to be the next major computing platform,” he said. “Oculus has the opportunity to do that.” In other words, Facebook’s bet on Oculus is a $2 billion wager that smartphones are just the beginning of our retreat from physical reality into our electronic environments.

If that’s true, Facebook may have just positioned itself to become the de facto identity service of the coming virtual world. And one of the company’s explicit goals, along with making the world more open and connected, is to “understand the world.” That means understanding how we spend our time, whom we talk to, what we say, and what we buy. But Facebook can’t understand any of those things when we do them offline. The more time we spend in virtual worlds, the less time we spend out of the reach of Facebook’s all-seeing eye.

Zuckerberg wants us to view virtual reality as a social platform. That’s important, because aside from the technology the biggest obstacle to Oculus’ success may be the perception that it’s fundamentally isolating and antisocial. If you thought people were annoyed when you spent half of dinner texting someone on your smartphone—or when you walked into a bar wearing Google Glass—just imagine how they’ll feel when you slip on your Oculus headset.

Just tell them it’s the most social platform ever. Then turn up the volume and tune them out.