For me, it feels like 1993 again. All of these technological pieces were coming together, and most in the mainstream had no idea of what was coming.
The past 20 years were really just training wheels for what is coming next. The boom of mobile computing just a step along the way.
I have no insight into the plans of Facebook and Oculus other than what has been publicly disclosed. At face value, the acquisition does not make any sense. Oculus was building an immersive gaming device. Facebook is a social platform, albeit a platform that touches in almost every non-immersive game you play. So where is the fit?
Some have speculated that Facebook’s goal is to create a “metaverse”, a virtual place to interact and play with your social connections. On the surface this sounds exciting, but is it really where they are taking us?
Virtual Reality or Augmented Reality
If completely immersive virtual reality is not in the playbook, what other advantages does Oculus give Facebook?
For background we have to look a the spectrum of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR).
Virtual Reality literally replaces reality. All sensory (or at least vision and hearing) inputs are taken over by a make believe experience.
Oculus Rift and other VR devices, like the Sony Morpheus, do a great job of immersing your visual cortex, but there are many other senses needed to truly cover VR, like motion and touch. Experiences should be carefully crafted as to not break the sense of presence in the virtual world.
Augmented Reality allows the user to still experience the real world but adds layers of information and interactions that don’t exist in the real world.
An example of AR is the Google Glass. However, it just touches AR with minimal overlay. It is more a convenient information access device than a true AR device.
AR really gets interesting when you blend virtual objects and interfaces with the real world.
Why Oculus? Why not build something from scratch?
Facebook was likely looking for more than technology. They were looking for people who have overcome major technical hurdles, and can continue doing so for the long haul.
However, there is one key technical innovation that set Oculus ahead of the competition; latency, or the lack of it. Latency as it relates to VR or AR, is the time between moving your head or body, and that movement affecting the virtual or augmented reality. In VR, latency causes disorientation and nausea. In AR, it breaks the connection of the overlay to real world thus making AR unsafe to be used in the direct field of vision.
While not a glamorous topic for the mainstream, this single innovation has suddenly kicked the doors wide open to not only great VR, but incredible applications of AR.
All The Pieces
It’s amazing that VR has been around for over 20 years, and commercially things are not much farther than what they were then. Is it because VR and AR are strictly tech trends? No, it is because there were a lot of missing pieces like portability, fidelity, usability and latency. The gaps are being filled at an ever accelerating rate.
Looking at all the viable tech now, we are a lot closer. Besides the Oculus Rift there are a few other important emerging technologies that impact the vision of a truly augmented community.
- Environmental Scanning
This technology is already in consumers hands in the form of Kinect, and to a lesser extent Leap Motion. This technology can rapidly scan a environment into a 3D representation that can significantly impact AR applications. Google recently created an experimental phone called Project Tango, which allows for continuous scanning in real time.
- Non-visible Wavelengths and Environmental Inputs
Imagine being able to see UV, infrared, wind, smells, sounds and more.
Apple has established a standard for indoor location aware services called iBeacon. While it has been technically possible to get fine grained position data based on envrionmental radio waves, this approach adds a layer of metadata for context aware applications.
- Brain Interfaces
As with VR, this is not a new technology. However, until recently, practical consumer applications have been elusive. Imagine instead of having to say out loud, “OK Glass” or “Find Steakhouse” to just having to think it.
All the tech is available now. The company that fits it all into a package close to a good pair of lightweight and cheap sport shades, wins.
Gaming and virtual experiences are great applications of Virtual Reality (VR). But does this translate to mass consumption by an audience like Facebook's? The answer to that is most likely yes, but that may not be a good thing. It may be a financial boon to the patent holders, but potentially at great cost to society.
Forget Flappy Bird, the addiction potential of realistic VR could outdo all other addictions, both physical and mental. Many great storytellers have covered this topic.
Besides addiction, extended periods of time in VR may have many other health and mental affects that are not completely understood.
“…change the way we work, play and communicate.”
I was inspired by 3D animation and VR in the 80s and 90s. Just from a technical perspective, I fell in love with simulation of reality.
But it wasn’t until I read The Daemon and Freedom, by Daniel Suarez, that I truly appreciated the potential impact of all this technology.
In this series, an undeniably antisocial character becomes part of a globally connected community enabled by augmented reality. Through 3D overlay on the characters’ eyewear, each and every individual is instantly aware of community needs, and can choose to participate in filling that need.
Daniel doesn’t just present AR as a tool, he shows how society itself can work together more effectively and efficiently, almost telepathically. He defined an approach to a powerful community platform.
I hope that, for the sake of society, Facebook’s plans don’t include replacing the real world.
They now have a great opportunity to use this technology to make our lives, and the planet, better by driving the next positive evolution of human interaction.
About Lawrence Wolfe
Larry has over 20 years experience in interactive media, delivering innovative and functional solutions for heavy hitters like Mack Trucks and Air Products. As our CTO and Chief Architect, Larry crosses the divide between the left and right brain to produce experiences that are compelling, easy to use and scalable.