Thursday, 27 March 2014

How Facebook should use Oculus Rift

Oculus has been purchased by Facebook. A $2 billion dollar bet on what may be the  future digital platform.  Virtual Reality is not new it has a long history.  The common impression of VR has been shaped by the film industry but real systems have been around for decades.

First described in the 1935 science fiction short story, Pygmalion's Spectacles by Stanley G Weinbaum as a pair of goggles which provide:

"a movie that gives one sight and sound [...] taste, smell, and touch. [...] You are in the story, you speak to the shadows (characters) and they reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it."

In the fifties Morton Eilig made the Sensorama, an immersive theatre system using a stereoscopic film display device with fans, and a moving seat. In 1968 Ivan Sutherland, the father of computer graphics, built the first computer based virtual reality head mounted display system. The 70’s bought us flight simulators, the 90’s gave us the Nintendo Virtual Boy, and as an owner of one I can tell you it is a real, not virtual, pain to use. Along the way the military, architects, and surgeons have found uses for the tech.

Today, with is the Oculus Rift, the technology can finally deliver on the promise of truly immersive, highly responsive environments. In a form factor, and a price point where it has the chance to go mainstream. The price is high but is bound to come down. Oculus are not the only game in town, technological advances, mass production and competition from Sony   and another notable competitor, the Avegant Glyph, will help lower prices. Facebook might even sell the headset at a loss. Because the immersive nature of the experience is so different, so compelling, they could set up a pay per experience market. 

The question is what will Facebook or the other players do with the technology? Mark Zuckerberg’s statement seems to me to have hit the nail on the head:

"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.
This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life."

The key word is “experiences”, its all about the experiences. Before working in the web, I came from a games background, one which excels at experiences. I have always though that what is lacking from accessing the web via the traditional pages model is the ability to deliver emotions. Sure you can watch an emotional video or read a poem that moves you to tears or emotionally respond to a song delivered through the web, but the experience of using the web does not inherently have the capacity to deliver emotions.

Games deliver excitement, loyalty, fear, tension, humor, you feel your whole body respond to games. Heart rates increase, you shout at your real or virtual opponents and punch the air when you win. When was the last time you got any of this from a web page?

The web we have designed is a content delivering system. We do it very well, and I am sure will get much better at it. We have interfaces which provide quick access to content structures. We try to minimize the number of interactions to access content. We have established conventions for how we organize and manoeuvre through content. We keep is simple and intuitive.

I will put on  my VR goggles to attend a conference or take a guided tour of the Sistine Chapel, learn about a new subject through rich immersive media, or meet my friends in a virtual world.  A vastly improved second life.

However, using three dimensions to navigate through a collection of news articles and video reports is laborious and inefficient. Currently we navigate in a 2d digital world. Adding that extra dimension brings big cognitive, UI and learning overheads. It is worth investing in these to receive an emotional hit, but not to read the news, or manipulate a sales tool. A 3D world is not a good way to deliver the written word. 

Firebox a VR browser by James McCrae, Toronto University

I remember conversations in 80’s where people spoke of  cathedral builders as a model for content delivery. Use the 3d architectural structure and details as a way to access content. People are still playing with this notion. In my mind failing. The cathedral model was more a story telling mechanism than content delivery. It worked in the middle ages partly because it was a way of expressing the power of God and of the ruling class but also because of high illiteracy rates. Give me a decent 2d information architecture any day.

Today content and context are the kings. In a VR world it is the experience. I do not see VR replacing the way we consume the bulk of our content, not in the next ten, twenty years at least. The current 2d world will live along side the 3d virtual ones. Increasingly augmented reality driven by context will deliver a third way, but that is another story.

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