Thursday, nine months after Facebook acquired virtual reality company Oculus for $2 billion, the social media giant finally delivered the first fruit of a collaboration CEO Mark Zuckerberg claims will someday create a new communication platform that "allows us all to experience the impossible." But it wasn't a bouncing baby consumer product for which some had hoped; instead it was the vague promise of a sci-fi-tinged, transformative media experience.
The delivery room was the F8 Developer's conference, and the attending was Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash, who gave a 30-minute presentation titled "Why virtual reality will matter to you."
Intended to clarify why Oculus fits naturally with Facebook's mission as a company that forges virtual social connections, the talk was long on pop science and frustratingly short on specifics.
Abrash devoted almost the entire presentation to a series of optical illusions designed to illustrate that the brain is an easily-tricked "inference machine," not the scrupulous recorder of some objective reality. It was a strange answer to the question posed by the title of his talk; the fact that the brain can mislead the senses, which Abrash demonstrated with the enthusiasm of a pioneer, has been modestly blowing the minds of introductory cognitive psychology students for decades, and it didn't help the Virtual Boy get off the ground.
So what? What's changed?
Well, two billion dollars, to begin with. But why should VR — more specifically Facebook and Abrash's vision of it — matter to us?
Let's start with why VR matters to Abrash and his colleagues, which is obvious enough. In his introductory blog post at Oculus, posted a year ago, Abrash wrote:
"Sometime in 1993 or 1994, I read Snow Crash, and for the first time thought something like the Metaverse might be possible in my lifetime. Around the same time, I saw the first leaked alpha version of Doom. I knew John Carmack from exchanges on the M&T bulletin board a couple of years earlier, when both John and I were learning how to write 3D graphics code, so I sent him mail saying how blown away I was."
Carmack, of course, is Oculus' chief technology officer and the co-creator of the seminal computer game Doom; Abrash worked with him on Quake, Doom's hyperviolent successor. Snow Crash is the influential cyberpunk novel by Neil Stephensen that got a lot of people thinking about virtual worlds for the first time (its virtual world is called the Metaverse). These three pieces of fiction are among the holy relics of modern nerd culture, in which it is basically taken for granted that the conditions of even highly cautionary science fiction are to be aspired to, not feared. It's self-evident to some people — I suspect Abrash among them — that VR matters, because it is one of the defining features of science fiction. Extant VR for sci-fi people is like a blood moon for the apocalyptically minded: A sign that something really good is happening.
Nowhere was this clearer than onstage Thursday, where Abrash drew an elaborate connection between Oculus and The Matrix, a 1999 movie about a group of humans struggling to escape the pernicious and all-encompassing virtual reality created by sentient computers. Abrash said he found the movie "inspiring," particularly the fact that, as a character in the movie points out, reality comprises electrical signals interpreted by the brain. It's an easy way of understanding how virtual reality works.
In that context, Abrash's focus on how easy it is to trick the brain makes a little more sense: As a VR evangelist, it's Abrash's job to tout the plausibility of the future he's envisioned. That doesn't make it matter, though, especially to people whose imaginative boundaries extend beyond the technological. It is very telling that Facebook's big demonstration of the Oculus was of a futuristic spaceship taking off: technology about technology.
Yes, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer pitched the idea of Oculus as a way to improve our social connections — imagine the joy of getting to virtually experience an office birthday! — and yet Abrash's vision of practical VR felt lame and circumscribed: "an infinitely configurably virtual workspace" ... using "our hands as dexterous manipulators."
Huh? Don't we already do that?
Both Abrash and Schroepfer made reference to the Oculus acting on the "unconscious" mind by eliciting real-life physical reactions that only make sense in the context of a virtual experience: reaching out for something to grab on to during a falling simulator, for example. But what they're really referring to isn't the "unconscious" — originally a Freudian construct referring to emotions, beliefs, and mental processes that exist beyond conscious introspection. It's a simple reflex action. Touting it as some deep cognitive process is very nearly the same conflation happening in Facebook's marketing pitch for Oculus: calling a technological improvement in twitch-motion sci-fi gaming a cultural event that will speak to everyone.
Indeed, for the vast majority of people likely to buy into Facebook's vision of VR , the Oculus is currently the wrong kind of virtual: nonexistent. They have no cultural preoccupation with its success. Nor is it self-evident to them that it should be a major feature of human life. Virtual reality, as imagined by the authors Abrash referenced in his presentation, is limitless and personal. In contrast, the vision pitched today by Facebook feels limited. At best, it's a virtual reality without practical applications for people who are not gamers or technophiles.
In the end, the best answer to Abrash's question currently may be this: Virtual reality will matter to you because people with a lot of money have decided to mass produce a virtual reality machine.
But even that is no guarantee of its success. Remember, the virtual world created by the machines in the Matrix is so drab and boring that even computer hackers want to get the hell out.