It is a decades-old promise that looked most likely to be realised in fiction rather than fact. Now, though, virtual reality might finally reach the mainstream after Facebook spent $2bn (£1.2bn) to buy a manufacturer of futuristic headsets that take control of a person’s field of vision.
Late on Tuesday night, Facebook founder – and chief executive – Mark Zuckerberg said it was time for the social network to “start focusing on what platforms will come next to enable even more useful, entertaining and personal experiences”.
The answer, for the billionaire entrepreneur, is contained in the purchase of Oculus, the maker of the distinctive $350 Rift headset – which looks like a massive pair of opaque diving goggles.
Once strapped on to a person’s face – and supplemented by a set of headphones, and they are capable of transporting the bearer into a new field of experience .
Inside, there is a screen for each eye, displaying high-resolution video generated by a computer.
They render a 3D image taking up your entire field of view, while advanced motion tracking technology allows the eye-screens to track the movements of the head.
“We’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences,” said Zuckerberg, offering a window into his thinking.
“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.”
However, anyone who has heard about virtual reality will know this sort of excitement is familiar. The technology has proved tough to develop.
Previous efforts have fallen prey to bad screens, worse graphics and nonexistent motion tracking.
But worst of all is the nausea. Bad VR can play havoc with your body’s sense of location, and lead to acute motion sickness.
The Rift attempts to beat those problems with a high-resolution display, super-accurate head-tracking sensors and a range of technologies designed to minimise the sickness. And, with Facebook’s money behind it, improvements will come ever quicker.
Facebook is not alone in betting on the new wave of virtual reality. “Oculus was founded on the contrarian belief that the right people at the right time could finally deliver on the science fiction promise,” said Chris Dixon, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz, the venture capital firm which pumped early investments into both Facebook and Oculus (as well as another company bought by Facebook, the photo-sharing website Instagram).
“Hardware components had become sufficiently powerful and inexpensive, and the pioneering engineers who invented 3D gaming were eager to explore a new frontier,” Dixon said. “Last year, my partner Gil Shafir and I spent time studying Oculus and virtual reality technology more generally.
“The more we learned, the more we became convinced that virtual reality would become central to the next great wave of computing.”
Nor is Oculus the first surprising acquisition for Zuckerberg. Earlier this month, Facebook announced the purchase of Titan Aerospace, a manufacturer of solar-powered drones.
But that was easily linked to one of Facebook’s existing business: Titan’s drones can stay airborne for five years, making them a cost-effective replacement for orbital satellites and crucial for Facebook’s Internet.org project to connect the developing world to the internet.
The Oculus purchase is the first time the company has looked so far ahead, although it remains a considerable risk in the era where 3D television has struggled to win over consumers because few people want to wear glasses at home for a technology that is not obviously better than high definition.
There are also likely to be challenges of taste too. Already, the first adult-only software for Oculus has arrived, with companies such as Wicked Paradise preparing fully motion-captured “episodic erotic games”.
That might not be the sort of “personal experience” that Mark Zuckerberg is looking for either. But he will need some sort of compelling application if the technology – and his $2bn bet – is to succeed.
Bought by Facebook
Instagram, bought in April 2012, $1bn
In 2012, Facebook astonished the tech industry with its purchase of the mobile photo app. Two years on, it is regarded as a smart move for a firm trying to redefine itself as mobile first. There has been intense competition with rival Twitter since the deal, with Instagram removing Twitter integration and Twitter blocking “find my Twitter friends” from Instagram.
Face.com, June 2012, $21m
The acquisition of the Israeli facial recognition company Face.com made a statement about Facebook’s plan to dominate the photo-sharing market. Face.com’s technology was soon incorporated into the “tag suggest” feature, allowing users to automatically tag themselves in friends’ pictures, but it also led to problems. Just months later, the company had to turn off the feature in the EU after Irish regulators ruled that infringed the privacy of users.
Branch, January 2014, $15m
Branch media was started by Twitter co-founders Ev Williams and Biz Stone, and attempted to encourage more in-depth discussion from social media. Facebook was interested in the core technology, and acquired the team to improve its own comment features.
WhatsApp, February 2014, $19bn
The biggest acquisition to date. Facebook wanted WhatsApp’s 450 million monthly users, all attracted by the simplicity of the free, mobile-focused messaging service. Some have viewed the deal as a defensive move by Facebook, which has gained control of a competitor that may have undermined it in years to come
Titan Aerospace, March 2014, $60m
A firm that specialises in solar-powered drones that fly at high altitude seems an odd thing for Facebook to buy. They are capable of staying airborne for five years at a time, which makes them a suitable replacement for orbital satellites. Facebook’s plan is to use them for its Internet.org project, which aims to connect five billion people in developing nations to the web.
…and the one that got away
Snapchat, the ephemeral photo messaging service, seemed mad to reject Facebook’s offer of $3bn for a buyout. The company, which was two years old and still “pre-profitable” in Silicon Valley parlance, decided it was worth more, and turned it down. Snapchat hopes to become a competitor to Facebook, rather than just a subsidiary of it. But in the months since, it’s been beset by security flaws, and already some are fearing that its young users may move on to something else. Should it have taken the money when it could?