3D social networks get real (Facebook Oculus VR demo)

(Update 12/12/2021: It turns out that this article, originally published in 2016, correctly identified Facebook’s overarching intention to dominate future social media activity in the 3D space. In October, 2021, Facebook rebranded itself “Meta,” noting that “3D spaces in the metaverse will let you socialize, learn, collaborate and play in ways that go beyond what we can imagine.”)

October 11, 2016: Back in 2015, in the wake of Facebook’s 2014 acquisition of Oculus VR, we speculated on the form that 3D social networks might someday take. How would Facebook make use of the illusion of depth to improve the experience of its users?

Last week, at Oculus Connect – a three-day conference for Oculus developers — the world got a good look at what this future looks like, and it’s a lot more mind-bending than we’d first imagined. As Mark Zuckerberg’s demo shows, interacting with people in an avatar-based virtual reality space provides a qualitatively different — almost magical — experience that’s not been seen before.

While it’s impossible to predict how marketers and brands will make of all this new functionality, by examining the history of The Palace – a 2D avatar based chat environment launched in the 1990s – one can project a possible future for Facebook’s software. (The Palace still exists, although its website doesn’t appear to have been updated in 20 years).

So what are we likely to see first from Facebook’s implementation of 3D social space?

Entertainment applications

One of the first unexpected uses to which The Palace was put was in the area of live, experimental theater. In 1997, the Palace was used to stage a virtual performance of Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” (retitled to “Waiting for Godot.com”). As a 1997 Salon article on the event recounts,

The characters were those in the original play — joined by anyone else logged onto the Palace that night who happened to stumble into the virtual room (“The Waiting Room”) where the drama was unfolding. The audience included not only lurkers inside the Palace itself but festival attendees in a theater, watching on a projection screen.

It’s easy to imagine such experimental, participatory dramas being launched on Facebook’s platform at many different levels – in schools, community theater groups, and perhaps even at the Broadway level.

The Palace also became “hot” when Korn, a popular 90s band, opened up a dedicated Palace area and promoted it vigorously on its web site. It’s easy to imagine musical artists hosting concerts in Facebook’s virtual space, and it’s not farfetched to think that Facebook might have a rich revenue stream ahead in terms of selling tickets for such virtual concerts. So look out, TicketMaster!

Business applications

At one point in Mark Zuckerberg’s demo, he transports himself and those virtually chatting with him to his own offices in Facebook’s corporate complex. While what goes on his office is some light-hearted game-playing, the conversation could have been substantive. Facebook’s realization of 3D social space is perfect for remote business conferencing, which is projected to be a $2.9 billion market in the U.S. by 2020. Facebook could easily engineer a version of its software tailored specifically to this market.

Business education – from “how to” tutorials using 3D representations of physical objects to traditional screen-based presentations – is another natural use of Facebook’s virtual spaces. One can easily imagine trade schools, universities, and graduate schools hosting virtual spaces – for the general public or restricted to registered students – that pioneer this brand of distance learning.

Watch this (3D space)

Virtual reality is still in its infancy. The jury is out on whether the kind of display hardware now required is so cumbersome that some people (especially non-gamers) will never engage with it. But the technology itself has so many compelling and perhaps irresistible applications that it’s likely to become mainstream within the next 24 months, and Facebook’s involvement is sharply accelerating this trend.

Right now, the limiting factor to Facebook’s goal for 3D social media is of course hardware; Facebook’s goal for 2016 is 400,000 Oculus Rift units, which is just a fraction of its worldwide audience. Nor is Facebook the only player in virtual reality: Samsung, Google, HTC, and others have indicated that they see 3D as the next dominant interface, and have different initiatives in place. So market fragmentation remains a real risk both for consumers and developers.

But what Facebook has – and the others do not – is a massive 1.71 billion user base (that’s why even buttoned-down B2B marketers must take it seriously as a marketing platform). Its near ubiquity puts it in a unique position to scale adoption very quickly. It also has cash – plenty of it – to encourage developers to create 3D content for the Oculus platform, and it announced on Thursday that it was setting aside $250 million to do exactly that.

So marketers should watch this (3D) space, which is quite likely to become as routine and ordinary a part of the computing experience as the flat display, keyboard, and mouse. As Mark Zuckerberg wrote back in 2014,

Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones. The future is coming and we have a chance to build it together. I can’t wait to start working with the whole team at Oculus to bring this future to the world, and to unlock new worlds for all of us.

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3d social networks get real
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3d social networks get real
Facebook's new demo software illustrates what a 3D social network will actually look and feel like.
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