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Is Virtual Reality Really Going Social? Facebook's Big Gamble

By Travis Hoium - Oct 20, 2017 at 8:31PM

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If people don't want to have conversations with friends in VR, Facebook may have a problem.

Every company eventually needs to learn how to handle disruption. Business conditions change and someone is going to come after your market, so successful companies long-term have to adapt and evolve to stay relevant. And it's often harder to adapt to disruption than it might seem. There are hundreds of examples, but Target and Walmart's inability to adapt to e-commerce, Microsoft and Intel's failures in smartphones, and Alphabet's failures in social media are a few easy recent examples that show how difficult it can be to adapt to a new business model. 

Facebook (META 2.03%) thinks it sees disruption coming in VR, and in his presentation that outlined the next year for Oculus virtual reality, Mark Zuckerberg laid out some of his vision for VR. A lot of what he talked about was making VR social, creating a tangible place that brings people together. The social vision is what made Facebook successful in social media, but is social interaction the future of VR? 

Man with a beard wearing an Oculus headset in a room with a white background.

Image source: Facebook Oculus.

Facebook's VR vision

The Oculus VR platform is one of the most advanced in the world and Facebook is trying to make it more social. The general idea is that Facebook can leverage its existing network, overlaying VR to bring friends closer and make businesses more productive. Last week, Zuckerberg showed examples of multiple people in a virtual environment, collaborating on a project. On the social side, we could see people sitting around a table, talking to the VR avatars of their friends. To me, it looked like an advanced Nintendo Wii interface. 

With these social VR experiences, you can see Facebook looking at the entire VR landscape through the lens of its social network. And that could be the company's problem long-term. It's what Microsoft did with the smartphone, Target did trying to make e-commerce a way to bring people into the store, and why Google thought it could make its own social network. Making VR social may not be what users are looking for

Oculus Rift hand controls being used by someone in VR.

Image source: Facebook's Oculus.

VR will create a world that doesn't exist today

Where I think Facebook is VR wrong today is it's trying to make VR part of Facebook. Why does that strategy make sense for VR users? 

Take a step back and think about virtual reality as an emerging technology. How do you as a consumer want to experience it? What kind of content do you want to look at? Where and how do you want to see it? 

There's no clear answer to those questions yet, but my first thought isn't entering the land of virtual avatars so I can have a conversation with my Foolish colleagues. I want to enter a world that's entirely new or experience something I'll never do in person. Some of the most amazing experiences I've seen in VR so far are diving underwater with a blue whale, riding a wave with Laird Hamilton, and walking out on a plank 50 stories above the street. As simple as something like the plank is, you're experiencing something you would never do in person, only a few inches off the ground. 

VR won't be shoehorned into Facebook's world

What's amazing about virtual reality is experiencing something you may never do otherwise in an entirely virtual world. Its power is in amazing people because it isn't tethered by the limits of reality. Facebook seems to want to put shackles on VR by making it something that will fit in its social network model. I think that's a mistake. 

What may save Facebook and Oculus is that customers and business could show it a better path. Oculus will ultimately be a platform that developers will build on top of and as they succeed Facebook can follow those who customers engage with most. Left to its own devices, Facebook may not see the path to VR success. 

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