Yesterday, Facebook announced that it was purchasing Oculus VR, makers of the Rift 3D virtual reality headset, for two billion dollars. If you’re not a hard core gamer locked into the happenings of the International CES show, you may not have seen this technology before.
Oculus has created a development kit, originally funded on Kickstarter, for an immersive 3D headset. This headset won multiple “Best of Show” awards at CES and was widely seen as one of the top technologies in Las Vegas this year.
But cool technology alone doesn’t automatically lead to a multi-billion dollar price tag. Even in Silicon Valley, there usually is a reason for throwing billions of dollars at someone. In this case, Facebook is seeking to maximize the value of a technology that telecom and unified communications professionals have read much about in past years, Virtual Reality.
In our world, we have seen a variety of virtual reality technologies come and go with limited market success ranging from Second Life to Avaya web.alive to Musion 3D telepresence to Suitable Technologies’ Beam Robot. Although all of these technologies looked promising at one point and have the potential to make some waves, none have justified the price tag that Mark Zuckerberg has placed on virtual reality. What are we all missing? Where is Facebook going to do that is different from the rest of the collaboration and communications market?
The Zuck has already blogged about this on Facebook, but he sees the Oculus Rift as a potentially new interaction platform to come after the mobile phone dies out. Facebook was late to the mobile revolution and wants to get in front of the next key interaction platform.
In his post, Zuckerberg lays out the next generation vision that Facebook has for virtual reality as an extension of Facebook:
“After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side 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.”
And imagine going through Facebook to gain access to these experiences. In theory, you could also bring your friends along to the courtside experience and Facebook could offer the same view to thousands of people at once. Students and Millennials are already used to working together by keeping social media windows open that keep access to their friends on their phone, tablet, or laptop. With Oculus, they could have their own immersive space for studying or hanging out.
(Interestingly, Plantronics developers have an interesting demo that they are starting to show where their headset was able to control a Google Maps view simply by moving your head from side to side. This is undoubtedly a first step in building the type of experience that Facebook would like to emulate over time.)
But one of the most interesting aspects of this vision isn’t how futuristic this seems, but how this vision actually reflects the past few years of unified communications. A couple of years ago, the Big Thing in unified communications was the potential to merge social networks with unified communications to create a converged collaboration environment. We already had virtual reality solutions. We already had immersive video, which has only gotten better year over year. And, of course, we already had the most advanced voice solutions in the world. The only thing left was to add a social aspect.
As social companies such as Jive Software and Yammeremerged as front runners, the common thought was that these would merge with UC vendors such as Cisco, Avaya, and Microsoft. But, despite Microsoft’s acquisition of Yammer, this hasn’t really happened as of yet. The biggest challenge has been that these social software vendors only see themselves as a portal for specific types of interaction, rather than a single point of interaction for all communications types. And in the vast majority of enterprise environments, social communities and call control are still completely separate in nature. Only now, with the advent of improved user experiences such as Unify’s Ansible product does it look like social media is finally being integrated into the typical business end user’s workflow.
Even in the consumer world, calling and social media are typically separate as well. Consumers rarely look for “unified communications” as a standalone capability from their phone company; they simply have a mobile phone that provides most of the benefits of unified communications: text, video, chat, presence, and social. And even then, the voice and video aspects are typically separated from the social networks they use, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Snapchat, and Instagram. Although Facebook and Google+ have started to make inroads into real-time communication, it would be hard to argue that either of these services are replacing Skype or Snapchat any time soon. So, not only does the enterprise world not accept this merger, but the consumer world still isn’t sure how to connect social networks with immersive speech or video communications.
Of the existing vendors in enterprise communications, only Microsoft seems to currently have the pieces needed to compete with Facebook’s vision. Between the XBox Kinect, Skype, Yammer, and Lync, Microsoft has the pieces to pursue a similar vision where social experiences can lead to immersive video and interaction. However, Microsoft hasn’t built a Virtual Reality department for a simple reason: lack of business demand. And despite the criticism that Microsoft has received on business execution, nobody has ever accused Microsoft for not chasing big markets: their investments into mobile and cloud technologies show real commitments to Windows Phone, Office365, Azure, and other technologies.
So, did Mark Zuckerberg just throw away 2 billion dollars? Given that Facebook is near an all-time high with a market cap over 150 billion dollars, this is a drop in the bucket for them. But two things tell me that this investment could potentially pay off.
First, the newest Oculus Rift experience really is head and shoulders above any virtual reality helmet or goggles that have previously been on the market, both in terms of comfort and immersiveness. I’ve worn my share of 5 pound helmets where one could only focus on a single area that would leave me crosseyed and dizzy when entering the real world. In comparison, the current Oculus development set is less than half a pound and provides a stereoscopic view to support normal vision. This provides a level of physical comfort that has been missing in virtual reality. But this admittedly only means that Oculus meets the minimal standards of being usable without creating pain for its user.
Second, and more importantly, technology has finally started to catch up to the demands of virtual reality, although it is still early. The combination of increased bandwidth and improved networking, immense back-end cloud resources to create better video environments, and the emerging concept of “wearable” mobile technologies such as Fitbit and Google Glass are leading to an environment where end users are starting to look at virtual reality as a potential option. The real key here is ultimately the adoption of wearables, as this determines whether end users will actually use a technology like this without thinking of this as a bizarre experience.
A relevant parallel may end up being the tablet computer industry. Back in 2000, Bill Gates demoed a tablet PC at COMDEX (Remember that name?) and announced that it was the future of computing. It ends up that he was right, but it took another 10 years of slogging through the UMPC (Ultra Mobile Personal Computer) and PDA (Personal Digital Assistant) market before the iPad finally made the tablet usable. The key wasn’t the size of the tablet or the processing power, but creating a user interface that replaced the stylus and awkward handwriting detection software of the time with a simple touch-and-swipe interface that is now standard.
For Oculus to succeed, Facebook is going to have to learn from the challenges of the unified communications market and the concerns of the consumer technology market. It won’t be enough just to have an interesting technology or to achieve integration between Facebook, Oculus, and real-time events. And it won’t be enough to build the massive infrastructure needed to provide a 3D viewing experience to a home audience. With this investment, Facebook is going to need to play a primary role in advocating and educating consumers on how to use headsets and augment their existing world with a virtual world. So far, that has been a tough sell. Then again, 10 years ago, the idea that a “social network” would be a 150 billion dollar company was a tough sell as well.
The frustrating angle for DataHive Consulting is the realization that the eventual integration of Facebook and Oculus is probably another 3-5 years down the road, meaning that we are unlikely to have any true projects for Oculus-based data before 2020. But while we wait for the tools of the future to gain widespread acceptance, it’s good to know that somebody is actually working on building it. In the mean time, we’ll have to maintain our focus on the social media, video analytics, and telecom big data problems that permeate the enterprise.