When Mark Zuckerberg describes his company's $2-billion purchase of Oculus VR, makers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset, he sounds like a cross between a Zen master and a grandpa encouraging us whippersnappers to spend more time outside. "By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life," the Facebook founder and CEO said in a post about the Oculus acquisition last week. "Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online but entire experiences and adventures."
Yet for Facebook and Oculus, "experiences and adventures" mean deepening our gaze into their network, immersing ourselves in a sensation that will one day be so indistinguishable from reality that developers describe it as "presence," an effect unique to the new medium, as magical as "live" television must once have seemed. Investors across the technology spectrum are betting that once we experience it, we won't be able to get enough.
Images of gamers zonked out with screens strapped to their heads make the current technology look goofy, but over time the technology will become less clunky.
But what can Oculus show us beyond lots of the same Internet, only closer to our retinas?
To focus on a single device or a single application like gaming is to miss the magnitude of the larger trend. Google is working with partners to find a more fashion-forward iteration of its augmented reality Glass, and Sony has been working with NASA to explore how its Project Morpheus headset could be used to crowdsource research on Mars. Not to mention whatever Apple is cooking up in the virtual reality department. Each company's approach may be different, but their objective is the same: to colonize our complete sensory system. While traditional display advertising might be dying a slow death, what better way to connect and share ads with users than to capture their full attention, to sell advertisers access to our complete "presence"?
These technologies are already converging, shrinking small enough to fit on a contact lens. And within a decade the worlds of augmented reality and virtual reality will have blurred to the point where those who can afford it may be able to choose at any given moment what they want to see and where they want to be, whether here, somewhere else, or some confluence of the real and the pixel that responds in real time to biometric data, storable, searchable, surveillable.
This convergence is less likely to result in a scene from "The Lawnmower Man" where we mount enormous contraptions to simulate a new world, but instead a projection of the network onto the real world, personalized and customized and cleansed of anything you don't want to see. Re-skin your blank room with digital decor as lifelike in your Oculus as it would seem to your eye. Let your Oculus recognize faces in a crowded room and feed you inventories of those people's latest purchases and proclivities. And when this augmented world is too much, retreat entirely into the digital until your alarm goes off.
Like the proliferation of most technology, the wealthy will be the earliest adopters, but before long there will be billions willing to surrender, just as we gave our butts to the chair, our hands and wrists to the keyboard, our fingertips to the glass, our eyes to the screen.