Facebook Begins Its Quest To Replace Reality

Now, logging onto Facebook means looking at photos of a friend’s birthday party. With Facebook’s latest acquisition, it soon might mean joining the party itself. Or at least feeling as if you’re doing so.

Imagine you slip on a pair of goggles, fire up Facebook and immediately have the sense you’re stepping into someone’s home. When you turn your head left, you see your friend's living room and a half-dozen people leaning against his couch. Take a few steps forward and you’re staring at champagne glasses in the kitchen, listening to Daft Punk pound over the din of cocktail party chatter. At the end of the night, your skin tingles with pleasure as you enjoy a passionate kiss with your date. Yet back in the real world, there's still no one around you.

It may sound futuristic, but Facebook’s new deal signals nothing short of Steven Spielberg-level ambitions. With its acquisition of virtual-reality headset creator Oculus VR, Facebook suggests that it hopes to make reality obsolete -- that the social network is looking ahead to a future in which face-to-face communication is indistinguishable from Facebook-to-Facebook communication.

Facebook announced Tuesday that it would pay $2 billion for Oculus VR, a two-year-old, Irvine, Calif.-based company that has developed a virtual-reality headset meant to give video game players the most realistic possible experience of digital worlds. Slipping on the Oculus Rift headset “provides a truly immersive experience that allows you to step inside your favorite game and explore new worlds like never before,” wrote Engadget in a recent review.

While Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said the first step will be to help Oculus VR develop as a platform, his ambitions for the technology extend far beyond that to mimicking real-life experiences -- from giving people the impression they’re looking at chalkboards in a classroom to simulating the sense they're in a thundering stadium at a live sports event.

“After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home,” wrote Zuckerberg in a post on Facebook. “This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.”

Zuckerberg already sees the simulacrum universe created by Oculus VR as a convincing stand-in for real-world interactions.

“The incredible thing about the technology is that you feel like you're actually present in another place with other people,” he wrote. “People who try it say it's different from anything they've ever experienced in their lives.”

Of course there also has to be gold in them virtual hills to warrant Oculus VR's 10-figure price tag. Oculus could make money for Facebook through the sale of its headset and Rift-specific games. But a more natural route for Facebook, which has never produced its own hardware, would be to sell ads in its lifelike world. Picture Budweiser cans -- paid for by the beer maker -- popping up in your virtual party. Or sponsored Pottery Barn furniture replacing your friends' retro chaise. At the very least brands like Zara or Hyatt might create immersive worlds for Rift-wearers to explore.

Though the Oculus acquisition came as a surprise to many, it’s not so far in a sense from Zuckerberg’s original vision of his social network: Facebook began on college campuses as an online abstraction of offline relationships. People connected with friends and classmates, not strangers. They used real names, not pseudonyms.

With virtual reality and the Oculus Rift, Facebook is continuing the push to move the "real" world onto the Internet. And there's no telling where that stops. Instead of mirroring our offline interactions, Facebook's next move could be to replace them entirely.