In about 24 hours, Mark Zuckerberg will take the stage at Facebook's annual developer conference, F8. In his many updates about the company he'll no doubt bring us up to speed on Facebook's progress in social VR.
You know, social VR? Socializing in virtual reality? You might remember it as that thing where a Zuck gets to pretend he's a cartoon version of Justin Timberlake and snap photos with virtual selfie sticks.
More generally, social VR involves putting on a headset not unlike Facebook's own Oculus Rift, connecting to a network, and interacting with other people who could be in the same room or on the other side of the world. You're all represented by avatars, and you can shape the environment however you want — from the conventional (a virtual café) to the sublime (outer space).
It's also something that no one ordered or cares about. Social VR will never be a thing.
I know… I see the money being thrown around in the category and the intense interest from Facebook and others. More than $2.3 billion was invested in VR in 2016 alone, up from $700 million in 2015. At F8, Facebook is dedicating no fewer than eight sessions on social VR. There were only two last year — a 300% year-over-year increase.
Mark Zuckerberg talks to his wife, Priscilla Chan, from a VR environment.
Developer interest and financial largesse don't equal consumer interest, though, and on that standpoint, I just don't see it. VR has been a real thing people can buy for more than a year, there's no sense that it's really taking off. By and large, the questions and concerns around VR have remained the same since the category's inception. It still has to prove itself, it still needs a killer app, and the equipment is still unwieldy or expensive or both.
That's probably not going to change in the near term, or even a few years out. And even if it does, social VR still won't be a thing because it actually goes against everything Facebook represents.
Social VR still won't be a thing because it goes against everything Facebook represents.
Facebook is now 1.8 billion users strong — it's fair to say, as the connected population goes, it's captured the planet. But it didn't do that by simulating real-world interactions online. It did so by reducing those interactions to their most basic: the poke, the comment, the like. Facebook is all about breaking down your "socializing" to its most efficient forms: You can listen to, react, or say something in a conversation, but without all the "how do you dos" or small talk or all the other social lubricants that punctuate real human contact.
Certainly, there's a case to be made that you lose something by abandoning those frictional social norms. Many have, and they make good points. There's a certain falseness to Facebook "friends" you never interact with beyond the occasional Like or emoji-filled comment.
But you can't argue with how efficiently Facebook has pushed us down the social-media funnel, distilling out interactions to the point where we can blaze through a News Feed, reading, watching and reacting to dozens if not hundreds of wholly different updates. You can be dropping hearts on someone's Star Wars meme one second, frowning at news about missile strikes the next.
Social VR epitomizes the opposite of this entire trend. Its aim appears to be recreating a real-world social setting, complete with gesturing, eye contact, and — ugh — actual speech. And for all the promise of infinite virtual environments to choose from, it's basically a singular experience — extremely limited when compared to the simultaneous many-worlds scroll of the News Feed.
I know it sounds silly to be making a case against such things. The thing is, I'm not making it — Facebook is. In fact, it's been making it since the beginning.
If there's a science to Facebook, it's rooted in quantum mechanics: reducing social interactions to a few basic units, which users can combine and recombine in near-infinite ways. But social VR takes an opposite, holistic approach: it's Einstein's relativity in this analogy, a universal theory that's nearly perfect in its description of reality but doesn't have much meaning at smaller scales — i.e. individual users.
In other words, Zuckerberg will need to pull off the social-media equivalent of uniting quantum mechanics and relativity — considered a Holy Grail in the scientific community — to make social VR a success. He's a smart guy, but even he's going to have hard time convincing anyone to click Like on his VR future.