This has been a difficult week for U.S. stocks, but perhaps Friday will offer some relief, with the benchmark S&P 500 and the narrower Dow Jones Industrial Average (^DJI 1.00%) up 0.82% and 0.86%, respectively, as of 10:15 a.m. EDT. Following its $2 billion acquisition of virtual reality specialist Oculus, Facebook (META 2.33%) is in the headlines again this week for a project that features advanced technology in a bet on the future that is reminiscent of some of Google's (GOOGL 0.36%) experimental ventures.
In a post published on Facebook on Thursday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared some information regarding the work of the the company's Connectivity Lab, which wants to use drones, lasers, and satellites to deliver Internet connectivity to everyone. Sounds a bit like science fiction, perhaps (or the ill-fated Strategic Defensive Initiative, the "Star Wars" missile defense shield that was proposed by the Reagan administration), and, indeed, Facebook has hired rocket scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ames Research Center. In addition, Facebook just acquired U.K.-based Ascenta, a five-person outfit "whose founders created early versions of Zephyr, which became the world's longest flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft."
Facebook, along with technology companies that include Samsung and Qualcomm, is a founding partner of Internet.org, which aims to bring Internet access to the two-thirds of the world population that does not yet have it. Google, meanwhile, is working toward the same aim via its own Project Loon, "a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to connect people in rural and remote areas, help fill coverage gaps, and bring people back online after disasters."
The drive behind these projects is idealistic, but don't mistake it for pure philanthropy -- that idealism is paired with a fervent belief about who is best suited to shape users' interactions with the Internet and with each other. Not to mention the enormous commercial interests that drive this innovation.
Take the Oculus acquisition, for example. In justifying the $2 billion deal -- which, at first glance, appears to be outside the social network's wheelhouse -- Zuckerberg explained that he believes virtual reality could be the next major computing platform, replacing mobile devices (he didn't say specifically that he thought the Oculus Rift VR headset is cooler than Google Glass, but you know he was thinking it). It's not clear that all these ventures will pay off on the basis of return-on-investment; still, it's nice to see U.S. business leaders thinking boldly.