It’s finally happening. Much like the debut of the internet or the smartphone, technological advancements have placed society on the verge of another seismic shift. Virtual reality is coming, and thanks to the moves of a few key players, social media is quickly proving to be the ultimate conduit for digital escapism. Take off your Oculus Rift, and follow me as we breakdown the past, present, and future of VR on social media.
Believe it or not, virtual reality has existed in some form since the mid 20th century. In 1968, Ivan Sutherland and Bob Sproull created what is widely considered to be the first virtual reality and augmented reality (AR) head-mounted display system. Social media itself is still in its infancy stage, with Facebook just catching on in the mid 2000s. Thus, virtual reality on social media has an extremely short history.
In March of 2014, Mark Zuckerburg announced that Facebook would acquire Oculus VR, sending shockwaves through the tech industry and prompting several speculative questions. How could Oculus, originally propositioned as a gaming console, be integrated into social media? As Zuckerberg suggested, “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.”
One year later, YouTube introduced 360-degree video support, paving the way for its first virtual reality livestream the following spring at Coachella. If you’re going to broadcast a music festival, you’ll need great sound as well. YouTube recently integrated spatial audio, in which sounds feel as though they are coming from all around you at different distances. The groundwork has been laid for immersive experiences. By combining with social media, virtual reality will allow you to share these experiences with your best friends in real time.
On April 13th, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer provided a VR status update at the F8 conference in San Francisco. Armed with an Oculus Rift headset, Schroepfer linked up with product manager Michael Booth, stationed 30 miles away at Facebook HQ. Booth, appearing as a ghostly floating head and two hands, guided his partner through 360-degree photographs of global cities. Together, they were able to create artwork, interact with augmented features, and even take a virtual selfie.
This spring, Starship launched Oculus Rift compatibility for vTime, a new social network that allows you to hang out with friends and family in an artificial environment. Visitors can also be transported into their own uploaded photographs (both 2D and 360) and invite others into the fold. New users can create their own lifelike avatars before entering one of 12 existing digital environments. vTime is also compatible with Google Cardboard, but Oculus Rift provides the most immersive virtual experience.
While VR gains traction, augmented reality is quickly becoming a mainstay. According to Wikipedia, “Augmented reality (AR) is a live direct or indirect view of a physical, real-world environment whose elements are augmented (or supplemented) by computer-generated sensory input such as sound, video, graphics or GPS data.” Snapchat lenses are the most ubiquitous expression of the technology, allowing users to swap their own faces or become slobbering puppies. This week, AR-based game Pokémon Go dominated my newsfeed, quickly becoming the most downloaded app on iTunes. The addictive game does not yet incorporate a social media component, but as new apps emerge, what distinguishes gaming from social media may become hazy. Strangers from all walks of life have been forming real world connections while immersed in Pokemon Go, congregating near Pokestops in search of rare creatures.
Through our social media accounts, we already present a distilled version of our true identities to the outside world, cherry-picking moments, photographs, and opinions for selective broadcast. Currently, it’s difficult to have a meaningful social interaction online without being able to read someone’s body language. Messages can be read any number of ways due to the absence of intonation and visual cues. With virtual reality, our social interactions will become much more intimate, but during its growth phase the potential to further distance our online personas from our actual selves will remain a concern. Current VR experiences incorporate avatars ranging from polygonic cartoons to not-quite-photorealistic facial scans. As technology advances, you’ll be able to have a naturalistic face-to-face interaction that feels like the real deal. Virtual reality will become the ultimate method of escapism, bringing you and your friends to new and exciting places while physically remaining in isolation. The premise is both exciting and scary, and it’s right around the corner.