Facebook’s latest eyebrow-raiser was its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus VR, the young start-up that makes nothing but the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset for hardcore gamers. There are plenty of games to play on Facebook, but none of them are total immersion-type universes like World of Warcraft or Call of Duty. So, what on earth would Facebook want with a big set of clunky goggles?
First, a quick back story: Oculus began as a Kickstarter project, funded by the hardest of hardcore gamers that would become its original audience. Then, whammo! Facebook snatched it up. Predictably, that original audience felt betrayed, and said all kinds of nasty things that presumably one day they’ll get over.
The question now is, WTF - What the Facebook? What does Mark Zuckerberg have planned for his users wearing big chunky headsets, besides full-immersion Farmville? Here are our best guesses, based on the statement Zuckerberg posted to Facebook and other Oculus watchers, and what implications those might have for brand managers and marketing people:
Zuckerberg’s first hypothetical in his statement was, “Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game...” OK, we’re imagining that. A half-dozen special cameras set up around the court that you can switch to depending where the action is, which let you feel like you’re sitting court-side with your feet on the hardwood. And then serving up 3-D ads of corporate sponsors during the breaks in the action.
The second hypothetical that Zuckerberg mentions is “studying in a classroom of students and teachers from all over the world,” so like University of Phoenix 2.0, apparently. There’s lots of ways to see the practical application of this concept, but for Facebook? Will it require an entirely new branded roll-out of “Facebook University,” like Apple did with iTunes U? Maybe so.
Doctors Without Borders
Zuckerberg’s third hypothetical is, “or consulting with a doctor face-to-face.” That’s a powerful statement. But while the Oculus Rift headset certainly has the ability to provide the user with the illusion of being in another space, actually being in that space is a different issue entirely. Without full-body holographic projections or something, it seems like instant, borderless medical exams via virtual reality headsets are a long way off.
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A company, Arch Virtual, has already sprung up to create applications exclusively for the Oculus Rift headset. Whether you want to tour a college campus, test drive a new car, or train for a military mission -- all of these sound scary on Facebook, but obviously brand managers for location-based adventures or cars or military hardware can see how this will make their lives easier and their ads easier to serve.
The British grocery store chain Tesco is looking at Oculus-based applications to see if it can use it to alter consumer behavior. Potentially terrifying for consumers; but for grocery-based brand managers, a possible game-changer.
Japanese car maker Nissan isn’t sitting on the sidelines on this; it’s jumping into Oculus Rift future with both feet to create a test-driving simulator to allow car shoppers to take a Nissan on the road without leaving their seat. Steer towards the hot air balloons, and Nissan assumes you prioritize comfort and elegance; if you head towards the kayaks, Nissan knows you’re up for an adventure. So at the end of your test drive, Nissan has customized a car to fit its profile of the type of driver you are.
Game of Thrones
HBO came to SXSW in Austin with a neat toy: Oculus Rift headsets programmed to offer users a virtual tour of 700 feet of the giant wall guarded poorly by John Snow in the Game of Thrones universe. Any media brand can see how the Oculus headset can be used to bring members of the audience into the world, pulling them through the TV screen into the universe of the characters.
Following the announcement of the Oculus-Facebook deal, the top guy at the company that makes Minecraft, Markus Persson, took to Twitter to say: Nope, not happening, because “Facebook creeps me out.” And Persson isn’t alone. Not everyone is sold that Oculus Rift if the future dominant platform of the internet. GigaOm’s response is tepid at best, bemoaning a possible drift from augmented reality to full-on virtual reality. Meanwhile, the Reddit comments thread are predictably unhappy.
So the jury is still out on Oculus Rift. Either it’s the next new thing, or just the thing that makes Google Glass users look sane.