Now that Facebook has placed a $2 billion (£1.2bn) bet on the future of virtual reality, many are left wondering just what an alternative universe might look and feel like on social media.
Last month's acquisition of Oculus, Facebook's second multi-billion-dollar deal in as many months, has likely done more for the perceived value and viability of virtual reality than any moves prior. With Facebook's resources and obvious interest now at the ready for Oculus, the speed of innovation and go-to-market strategies for virtual reality should rise on all fronts.
But why Facebook decided to enter the virtual reality market in such a big way now and what it could possibly be planning is largely unknown. While previous acquisitions like Instagram and WhatsApp served to solidify Facebook's dominance in social media, its visions for Oculus are even more grandiose.
The company is now playing the long and short game with equal fervor - a mix of offensive and defensive moves that could keep Facebook growing tomorrow and well beyond a decade from now.
"I think in this play for virtual reality and social media, Facebook is trying to overcome a few things that are becoming a glaring pain point for them," says Mike Templeman, CEO at Foxtail Marketing. Declining engagement and the sense of guilt many feel over their time spent on social media both had a big part in Facebook's decision to buy Oculus, he says.
"When people socialized on Facebook there's that stigma of you're not interacting in the real world," Templeman adds. Bringing virtual reality into the picture would boost engagement and remove some of that anti-social stigma almost immediately, says Templeman.
"You would be entering an alternative reality with a social experience," he says. Ultimately, that sense of altered reality could give users a more compelling reason to come back regularly.
Facebook ready for the 'Platform of Tomorrow'
In describing his reasons for making such a massive bet on a still unproven technology platform, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he believes virtual reality is the foundation for a "new social platform." Now that more than 1 billion people are using Facebook's mobile apps, the company is "focusing on building the next major computing platform that will come after mobile," he told investors during a conference call.
"Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world, consulting with a doctor face to face, or going shopping in a virtual store where you can explore and touch the products you're interested in, just by putting on goggles in your own home," Zuckerberg says.
"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," he adds.
Science fiction becomes social reality
Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe says the opportunity for a social experience in virtual reality was not something he expected early on, but the potential pairing became more obvious as the platform grew. "Virtual reality definitely sounds like something out of science fiction, but science fiction has a habit of becoming fact," he says.
Technology's long dance with history also has shown that those visions of a more connected future go through many changes on their way to becoming reality. As such, what virtual reality may look like five years from now could be very different than what's possibly today.
"You're going to see faces, you're going to be able to move through space and people are going to lose themselves," says Templeman of Foxtail Marketing.
"I think it's actually a scarier prospect getting into social media... Socializing is what people live for, it's what they strive to have," he says.
The makings of a marketer's dream
"We pay right now for a square inch of space on a person's monitor and we pay really good money for that. In the virtual reality world you're going to engage with consumers in a whole new way," he adds. "If people are going to be living and socializing in a virtual reality world it's a marketer's dream."
Chris Roberts, a senior consultant at the design and development firm Cambridge Consultants, says virtual reality has the potential to bring our interaction on social media closer to real life by fully immersing ourselves in the same environment as the people we're interacting with online. While virtual reality has tried and failed to get off the ground in decades past, he believes the ongoing advancements in technology will help elevate virtual reality to a more widely adopted platform.
"Your conversations would no longer have to be analog, as they are now, but become digital and occur on multiple levels as participants join the conversation and add facts and opinions to it based on the conversations and discussions at hand," says Alan Guinn, managing director of the Guinn Consultancy Group.
"This is a fascinating topic and is only as limited as one wants to make it," he says.
When people first experience a fully immersive virtual reality world they get goosebumps, says Iribe of Oculus. "You see how big this could be, and how social it is, and the impact it could have on other industries."
Read more about social media in CIO's Social Media Drilldown.