Mark Zuckerberg wants to make VR synonymous with the Facebook experience.
Image via Facebook user Mark Zuckerberg
When Mark Zuckerberg strode onto the floor at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past Sunday during Samsung’s Galaxy S7 press event, it made for the perfect photo opportunity. In the resulting image, Zuckerberg strolls past a sea of people wearing Samsung Gear virtual reality (VR) headsets. They are plugged in, blind, closed within the VR experience, as he, the ringmaster and the only one who can see, gleefully surveys the rapt crowd. As expected, the internet erupted with satirical commentary and memes.
Forget that photo. Disregard the comically dark interpretations bandied about in tweets and memes, which framed the image as analogous to The Matrix, or the iconic Ridley Scott-directed Apple Super Bowl commercial from 1984. It’s all distraction. The real dark portents could be found in Zuckerberg’s words that day, not in that viral image.
He described VR as “the most social platform” at the Mobile World Congress, a troubling framing for a broad technology that is only now beginning to come of age. This description is alarming because at this early stage of public adoption, the Facebook chief wants us to think of VR as a “social platform,” an extension of his empire, rather than a technology or a general tool that can be used in a million different ways.
Given Facebook’s investment in Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift, the headset that kickstarted the modern VR movement, it’s fairly clear that Zuckerberg was engaging in a subtle branding and marketing campaign. Instead of users associating VR with an experimental spirit, where people create and inhabit their choice of new worlds and experiences, Zuckerberg made it clear that he wants VR—via the Oculus Rift—to be about the Facebook-branded social media experience, only now in 360 degrees.
It’s no coincidence that Zuckerberg spoke during Samsung’s press event. The Samsung Gear VR is built on Oculus Rift’s technology. He paid $2 billion for Oculus Rift, and it’s in Facebook’s interest to promote the Rift hardware and eventual ecosystem over others. It gives Facebook something it has never had—hardware around which it could potentially, like Apple, create a sandboxed software ecosystem. It could allow Facebook to become market dominant in the virtual reality space, and that is a less-than-ideal outcome for what could be a world-changing (and even therapeutic) tool.
Think of it this way: Because of Apple’s market supremacy, many developers feel that they have to create apps for Apple’s iOS over Android or other mobile platforms. Assuming that virtual reality matures in the next few years, this situation could be mirrored in the VR space, where an ecosystem (hardware, software, and app store) becomes dominant, pulling developers into its vortex. Zuckerberg observed how Apple and Google became dominant in mobile. So it would be foolish to think Facebook isn’t plotting something similar in the VR space with the Oculus Rift. But don’t take my word for it—pay close attention to Zuckerberg’s own choice of words.
“Imagine being able to sit in front of a campfire and hang out with friends anytime you want. Or being able to watch a movie in a private theater with your friends anytime you want. Imagine holding a group meeting or event anywhere in the world that you want. All these things are going to be possible. And that’s why Facebook is investing so much early on in virtual reality. So we can hope to deliver these types of social experiences.”
In other words, new, mind-blowing VR experiences are just another gateway for social media—a device to capture revenue not only from VR apps but from social-media-generated data. By calling VR “the most social platform”, Zuckerberg is normalizing people to that concept. When people finally get a VR headset, he hopes they will get the Oculus Rift and remain inside Facebook’s social media world.
If Facebook can integrate the Oculus Rift with the artificial intelligence it is developing to better understand users, alongside its efforts to connect 4 billion people to the internet with Free Basics (formerly Internet.org), then the world will be presented with a corporation that has far, far too much power. So forget that viral photo of Zuckerberg and the sea of Mobile World Congress attendees wired with VR headsets. We aren’t entering The Matrix. But if Oculus Rift wins the VR space, we may be entering a virtual reality landscape controlled by Facebook. And a Facebook-dominant VR space wouldn’t only be limiting to a powerful new tech—it would be just plain boring.