A few months ago, jaws dropped as Facebook shelled out $2 billion to purchase Oculus VR, a virtual-reality headset company started on Kickstarter. Nobody knew why the social network had acquired this cyberpunk technology company. That was, until last night at the Techcrunch Disrupt conference, where Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe revealed what many of us thought might be too sci-fi to simply assume: Facebook would like to build the first billion-person game.
More specifically, Iribe name-dropped the "Metaverse," a concept from Neal Stephenson’s book Snow Crash, in which users log in to a fully immersive virtual world filled with its own streets, apartments, monorails, and advertisements. Couples even go to the Metaverse for dates—I guess it's like Snapchat or texting works now, but in photorealistic 3-D—and no doubt it helps that every player can look like a supermodel in the Metaverse.
Now, maybe you have no interest in virtual-reality Facebook cities or old sci-fi novels. Still, Iribe’s comments are incredibly telling about where Facebook is going in the future.
As Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb, put it to me a while back: The original age of the Internet was just about getting people connected online. That was amazing at first, but it was isolating too, as many of us opted to spend time on our iPhones when sitting with a loved one at dinner.
Now, we’re finally at a place where so many of us are online, that the online experience can reverberate back into the real world. That’s what Airbnb’s apartment rentals, Foursquare’s restaurant check-ins, and Tinder's local dating matches are really all supposed to be about in the big picture. How can these digital technologies help us connect to one another in flesh and blood? How can they enhance our existing world rather than replace it?
But according to Oculus, Facebook isn’t going to pivot back toward our analog experience. They’re doubling down on getting people connected. With Oculus technology, it seems they actually want to get people more deeply wired into Facebook by creating a digital world as a surrogate to the real one. Checking Facebook 14 times a day isn’t enough when we could, in essence, live on Facebook.
The question becomes, how does Facebook make its metaverse such an appealing experience that we can’t resist it? Because right now we check Facebook to see what others are doing in real life: Who posted new pictures of their kid? Who has a birthday today? But if we were all to live on a Facebook metaverse, there would be only one fairly boring thing to share—what you doing on Facebook.