Back in October I had the opportunity to play around with Eve Valkyrie on the Oculus Rift. I loved the hell out of it, but I realized the entire time that I was playing it, it was a gimmick. Valkyrie would have been fun to play on a flat monitor, too.
Yeah, that’s right, I said it. Virtual Reality has always been a gimmick, and it’s never been incredibly successful (nothing comes to mind more than the Nintendo’s “Virtual Boy” in that department). However every generation of virtual reality devices has been a massive leap forward from the previous generation, and I think I can finally get excited about this iteration. That said, on Tuesday it was announced that Oculus VR had been purchased by Facebook.
My initial reaction was “Oh no, virtual reality Farmville?” And like others I began to voice my displeasure and fret over what would likely be the currently best-hope for virtual reality gaming. Notch, the creator of Minecraft shared my concerns and cancelled plans to bring Minecraft to the Oculus Rift. On the other side of the coin, CCP told Eurogamer “We’re very excited for our friends and colleagues at Oculus… we share their vision about the future of VR and gaming and are looking forward to participating in the consumer launch of the Oculus Rift with Eve: Valkyrie.”
So, what could Facebook possibly want with a gimmick like Virtual Reality? The answer may actually lie with Google Glass.
Virtual Reality is great if you want to sit down in your living room and play a video game. A more social version could allow you to sit in a virtual movie theater and watch a movie with a friend who’s halfway across the world. I look forward to something like this but, let’s be honest, that probably won’t be a mass-market consumer product as most people who aren’t perpetual shut-ins living in their parents’ basement like to get out of their house once in awhile and do things.
The answer, I believe, is not VR, but AR.
Picture this: You’re wearing glasses that don’t make you look like a creepy, fedora-wearing hipster, and you’re the not-quite-as-creepy-but-equally-nerdy-guy-on-the-right-of-that-picture, me. You’re walking down the street, and you glance at window of a local restaurant/cafe/diner/whatever. You see a sign, and it says something like “Hey, DaiTengu! We’ve got the freshest shrimp in town, and it’s on sale today!”
“Shrimp!” you think to yourself, “I love shrimp!” The sign changes. “5 of your friends have been here recently, one has left a review, would you like to view it?”
“I probably should see what my friends say about this place before I go in,” continues your inner-monologue, so you glance at a floating “yes” button and blink twice. A red siren appears where the sign was, and you see that your friend has given the place a one-star rating, “After eating here, things exploded out of bodily orifices at velocities that could have warped the fabric of space-time. AVOID AT ALL COSTS!”
With a new mental image in your head that you probably didn’t need, you turn away from the sign and continue down the street, following a virtual path that leads to your destination.
Facebook now has something they could begin to use to compete with Google, should Glass ever take off. Most of the technology already exists to set something like this up. Facebook and Foursquare know your favorite places, Google knows where you are, and where you’ve been within a few feet if you have an Android device and you haven’t shut off GPS tracking, Amazon knows what things you like to buy, Netflix knows what kinds of movies you like, and I’m sure there’s something out there that can figure out what you like to eat. The technical hurdles are really hardware and network capacity based at this point. Combine it all into a UI that’s intuitive and not overwhelming, and you’ve got the next leap in personal computing.
With augmented reality, companies could sell virtual advertising on their buildings. Vendors could be easily tracked and pointed out at sporting events and they could come directly to you. Interesting facts or historical references could be placed in locations in the wilderness without having to place damaging plaques & markers. The possibilities are endless.
If you’re a table-top gaming nerd like me, some of this may sound familiar. It is similar to the world of the 2070s described in Shadowrun 4th Edition (and now, 5th edition!).
I really want to believe that this is why Facebook bought Oculus. They’re not a gaming company, they’re a social company. While gaming can be social, there are limits to the VR gaming gimmick. Grandma & Grandpa aren’t going to jump in the TIE fighter from Star Wars X to hang out with their grandkids. Given a choice, they’re not going to go to a virtual movie with them either, they’d much rather go over to their house and give them a big hug in person. And, as long as it’s easy to use and intuitive, they may just use some form of AR on the trip there.