If you watched any of the latest incarnations of the TV show Star Trek, one of the neatest bits of technology on the good ole starship Enterprise was the “holodeck,” an entertainment area that allowed people to enjoy make believe experiences using a concept called virtual reality. The idea of virtual reality isn’t new and has been a staple of science fiction for decades. Think of it as the ability to experience with your five senses something that is not real. In a way, it’s like going to a 3D movie that you can touch, smell and even taste. Well, like a lot of technology trends that started as science fiction, virtual reality is getting closer to becoming science fact.
A couple of weeks ago, Facebook made a big splash by announcing that they had acquired a Southern California-based company called Oculus that is a leader in virtual reality, or VR as it’s called. Facebook, like most big tech companies, acquires a lot of other companies to extend their offerings or add a missing piece of technology to their portfolio, but the Oculus purchase surprised many people. Not only was virtual reality technology something that Facebook didn’t seem to be pursuing, they also paid a premium for Oculus — $2 billion.
Oculus’ claim to fame is a headset, called the Rift, that has been heralded as the device that could make virtual reality the next big thing in video-game technology. It began as a project on Kickstarter, raising nearly $2.5 million from 9,522 backers in August 2012. Resembling a pair of bulky ski goggles, the Rift promises to “take gaming to the next level” by immersing the viewer in a lifelike environment. It tricks your brain and it feels like you’re somewhere you’re not. Except in real life, you’ve never gotten that sense of scale that Rift provides so you can use these goggles not just to play games but also experience places you might never see in real life, like a rain forest, the Serengeti or deep under an ocean.
It’s not surprising that Oculus is based in southern California, near so many movie studios and production companies. Those folks have been trying to create virtual reality environments for years and the closest they’ve come so far is 3D movies. Travel companies, too, are excited about the potential of virtual reality tours where customers pay to travel to far-away places from the comfort of their homes. Imagine being able to go on a virtual reality safari where you never have to get on a plane yet you feel like you’re in the middle of Africa or Antarctica. And it’s affordable. More than 30 years ago, a company called Lanier made a head-mounted VR device similar to the Oculus Rift that cost $100,000. Developer kits for the Rift have been priced at $300 to $350; a consumer version is expected late this year or early next year.
For Facebook, virtual reality will be an extension of the user experience. Initially, it’s probably going to be focused on gaming but I anticipate that the virtual reality experience will be integrated into pretty much everything Facebook does.