When Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) acquired Oculus VR in 2014, CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared that its Rift VR headset would start out as a platform for "immersive gaming," but that it would eventually become "a platform for many other experiences" like attending live events, taking remote classes, or visiting distant places. That statement fueled speculation that Facebook would merge its social network with the Oculus ecosystem, enabling users to "virtually" visit each other across the Internet.
At the time, the idea seemed like a sci-fi fantasy. Last year, however, Facebook launched a dedicated VR app and media store, Oculus Home, for the Rift and Samsung's (OTC:SSNLF) Gear VR. Facebook showcased how games like ping pong could be played in virtual space, and Samsung even streamed a live birth in virtual reality to a father thousands of miles away. Those developments indicated that virtually visiting friends and family wasn't such a far-fetched idea.
Social VR games and videos are next
Facebook's Oculus recently took an even bigger step toward that goal by enabling Gear VR users to create profiles, search for friends, and leave user reviews for apps in the Oculus Store. Oculus also added two new social games -- Social Trivia and Herobound: Gladiators -- which both support up to four players.
As for VR videos, Oculus users can now directly connect Oculus Video to a Facebook account to personalize a feed of 360-degree videos based on pages that they follow. Oculus will add support for liking, sharing, and reacting to those videos in the near future.
Oculus has also added private rooms in Oculus Social for watching Twitch and Vimeo streams while voice chatting with friends. Last month, Facebook noted that Gear VR users had already watched 1 million hours of VR video, indicating that VR videos could play a major role in the future of the Oculus ecosystem.
Facebook and Samsung's alliance could hurt Google
The growing VR ties between Facebook and Samsung, the top Android-device maker in the world, should make Alphabet's (NASDAQ:GOOG) (NASDAQ:GOOGL) Google nervous. Samsung has tried to reduce its dependence on Android before -- it launched its own Android app store and payment platform, developed its own mobile OS, and even agreed to pre-install Microsoft apps on its Android devices.
By tethering its Gear VR devices to Facebook's Oculus ecosystem, Samsung is passively discouraging its users from downloading VR apps from the Google Play store. This move definitely hurts Google, which is trying to establish its own VR ecosystem within Google Play, with Cardboard.
The connection of Facebook, Vimeo, and Twitch videos to the Oculus ecosystem also threatens YouTube's growth in VR, and 360-degree videos. Piper Jaffray estimates that, out of the 12.2 million VR headsets that could ship this year, 5 million units will be Gear VRs, and 3.6 million will be Oculus Rifts.
That's not to say that Facebook and Samsung will marginalize Google in the VR market. Google's Cardboard app has already been installed up to 10 million times on Android devices, and YouTube's 360 channel has nearly a million subscribers. Google is also reportedly developing a stand-alone VR headset tethered to its own dedicated VR store. This means that Facebook and Samsung might have a head start, but Google isn't that far behind.
Will Facebook evolve into a VR platform?
During a recent interview in the German newspaper Die Welt am Sonntag, Mark Zuckerberg called VR a "new computing platform." This means that, after conquering PC and mobile platforms, Facebook's ecosystem could expand to virtual worlds. A few million VR headset users might seem insignificant compared to more than 2 billion smartphones in the world today, but we should remember that there were only about 139 million smartphones back in 2008.
If VR headsets follow a similar growth trajectory during the next few years, Oculus' early batch of social games and videos could be considered revolutionary apps that established the foundations for more-complex social interactions in virtual space. Those interactions could help Facebook evolve from a social network into a virtual one -- which might have far-reaching implications for the way people communicate with each other.