Last week, Facebook purchased Oculus Rift, the maker of a virtual reality headset, an acquisition which is once again making the brains of the public and tech press hurt. Instagram for $1B? WhatsApp for $19B? Oculus Rift, a company that has barely demoed a product, much less sold anything, for $2B? Crazy right?
Not when you realize that Facebook, Microsoft and Google are in an all-out war for your eyes and brain.
Let's start with the eyes.
Is anyone going to wear this stuff?
The tech-press and public are quick to write off augmented reality and virtual reality as fringe or before their time. When Google launched Glass last year, many correctly noted that, well, the thing looks ridiculous. Only an idiot (or a tech genius who hangs out with billionaires and 'burners') would think you could get millions of people wearing what might best be described as an attempt to make orthodontic head gear "sleek and stylish."
But Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder and internal glass champion, has the tech giant betting on Glass in the long-term. Earlier this month, Google announced that Oakley and Ray-Ban will make the next version of Glass (due out in 2015). It may take the company a few iterations to crack the fashion code, but if Glass looks like Ray-Bans, people will wear them.
What about the Oculus Rift, which looks less like a gaming console and more like a black box squid sucking on users brains through their eyeholes? For the hardcore gamers — the type of person that re-engineers their entire living room around their Xbox One — a pair of weird ski-goggles won't be a problem.
Further, with the full backing of Facebook, the Oculus Rift will quickly become sleeker and more accessible. Let's remember, the current version is basically the same device that only 18 months ago was literally built by a 19-year-old in his garage.
The Rift represents a direct a threat to Microsoft's Xbox business. When compared to Oculus Rift's fully immersive, world creating experience, the Xbox Kinect seems more like something that belongs in an information kiosk at an overpriced museum than a 21st century gaming device.
That's probably why Microsoft quietly bought the IP from a company that makes augmented reality displays for the military for $150 million. Microsoft could either a) develop their own augmented reality/ virtual reality glasses, b) patent troll Google and Facebook like they have Android (MS is slated to make $2 billion in Android royalties this year) or, most likely, both.
But this isn't about just about gaming, it's about a new age of communication and computing.
Why the non-gamers will plug in.
In a call with investors, Zuckerberg came right out and said it.
“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face — just by putting on goggles in your home,” he says. “This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”
If Zuckerberg is correct that virtual and augmented reality represent next-generation communication and computing platforms, Facebook is uniquely situated to take advantage of them. Just two weeks ago, Facebook announced that their facial recognition artificial intelligence is now more accurate than humans. If you had this capability embedded in your glasses, you'd never forget another name.
The way Facebook achieved this breakthrough is telling: Their artificial intelligence algorithm used two-dimensional Facebook pictures to create 3D renderings of the faces in the picture.
Say your Facebook profile included a few dozen photos of yourself (many users have several hundred photos), Facebook could likely create a photorealistic, full-body 3D avatar of you and of all of its users today. So, using existing Facebook and Oculus Rift technology, people could log-in to virtual space as a realistic version of themselves, and interact with equally realistic (and unsettling) versions of their friends. Instead of visiting your friend's timeline, you could see them and, if you wanted to get their attention, actually poke them.
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