Can Zuckerberg Make Virtual Reality Social?

For those of you that were hoping the virtual reality hype was nothing but a passing phase like 3D television a few years ago, I’m afraid Mark Zuckerberg has very different plans after announcing a new dedicated “Social VR” team during a surprise appearance at Samsung’s Unpacked event in Barcelona.

Although spending a cool $2 billion on Oculus VR two years ago seemed a little extravagant at the time, it is increasingly looking like an incredibly shrewd decision. In an ambitious move, Zuckerberg has set his sights on connecting 1.5 billion users in the online community using VR technology.

I’m building a team to explore how Virtual Reality can empower the 1.5+ billion people on Facebook to share their experiences and connect with each other in amazing and powerful new ways. — Mark Zuckerberg

For those reading this that are still convinced VR is a passing fad, I would advise that you visit last week’s watershed moment where Vrse founder Chris Milk created the largest simultaneous virtual reality experience in history. Anyone with a smartphone and Google cardboard can enjoy a completely immersive 360-degree VR experience that immediately delivers the game changer moment.

Whether you are flying above New York City and being able to look all around you or being dropped into a refugee camp and look into the eyes of fellow human beings or hearing a small child crying, I guarantee that it will be the moment that you grasp the possibilities of this technology that is far beyond gaming.

If we are given the gift of experiencing the world from another perspective, see the world through their eyes and walk a mile in their shoes to view their living conditions. Is it beyond the realms of possibility to think that VR could change attitudes and create a greater understanding of the world around us or even alter our world view?

When Facebook announced that ‘new teams’ are creating the ‘next-generation’ of social VR apps, I must confess it feels like a missed opportunity and fear it could quickly descend into virtual conversations with friends about what they purchased at the mall rather than going on a quest for greater knowledge and understanding.

There is currently a degree of distrust and indeed suspicion around the real intentions of the social media behemoth. Sure Zuckerberg’s sales pitch of global citizens gathering around virtual campfires, watching movies in their private theatre or even holding group meetings all deliver that warm fuzzy feeling. But is there something more sinister going on here?

Some would argue that calling VR ‘social’ is somewhat of an oxymoron when it involves strapping a headset to your face and shutting yourself off from the real world. Isn’t this actually anti-social? A quick look around a room of anyone wearing a VR headset suddenly conjures up images of the dystopian future of a society reminiscent of the Matrix movie.

After a lifetime of reading too many comics or a diet of good and bad movies, I have learned that with great power comes great responsibility. It seems that we are all still trying to work out if Mark Zuckerberg is the caring, well-meaning guy wanting to make a difference with his fortune or if he is some sort of charismatic super villain with ulterior motives. But I guess the jury is still out on this one.

I would urge anyone with a smart phone to download the Vrse app on Android and iOS and even if you don’t have a cardboard VR headset just yet, have a look at the 360-degree experience videos and make your own mind up on the possibilities of this evolving technology.

Are you excited about how VR could change the world? or fearful of a society staring into headsets rather than each other? Please comment below with your thoughts on this emerging technology.

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Thanks for reading. Check out my column at Inc. Magazine and connect with me on Twitter at @neilchughes. Contact me via my site Technology Blog Writer if you want to reach out or appear on my podcast