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As people spend more and more time interacting in virtual worlds using their VR headsets, it leads to the interesting question:
What does virtual reality mean for the future of social networking?
The conventional wisdom, of course, is that the future of the social network will just be Facebook with some interesting virtual reality add-ons. Instead of posting photos and videos, for example, you might post a 360-degree experience showing you immersed in some virtual world. You would still have the same friends and the same network – only you might choose to interact with them from time-to-time in the virtual world as well. (For example, you might invite a friend in a different part of the real world to play ping-pong in the virtual world as a brief diversion from a boring day at the office.)
On the surface, this future scenario makes a lot of sense. After all, Facebook did buy Oculus VR, the most famous virtual reality company in the world, for $2 billion back in 2014. And at Facebook’s most recent F8 conference for developers, the company’s executives talked about the concept of “social VR,” in which Facebook would help users have social experiences within virtual worlds.
Thus, in the minds of many people, when you combine the world’s biggest social networking company with the world’s biggest virtual reality company, you basically get a hybrid type of experience in which the Facebook social network is still front and center. In short, the way you enter the virtual world is via Facebook.
Mark Zuckerberg may be a visionary and a few steps ahead of most of us, but he’s not really going to imagine the future disappearance of his company, is he? Facebook is basically assuming that there’s so much inertia around the social network that, as long the company continues to add fresh updates and new features (Messenger! FaceTime! Facebook Live!), people aren’t going to go anywhere else.
But what if the friends we are able to make in the virtual world turn out to be cooler, more fabulous and more interesting than our friends in the real world? In the new Oculus Social app for the Oculus Rift, for example, you can choose which avatar you want to be when you enter a virtual world. It’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to assume that some people are going to choose some pretty funky avatars when they’re experiencing VR.
That’s the case, for example, with vTime, which bills itself as “the VR sociable network.” When you want to “chat” with one of your friends, you invite them into the virtual world, where you assume the form of an avatar. And, not only that, you can choose from 17 different virtual worlds where you’re going to chat – you could just as easily chat in the center of Paris as you could on the bottom of the ocean or within the International Space Station. In one of the examples used by vTime, you can choose a photograph that you’ve uploaded to the network and use that as the location of the chat.
So is a social virtual world the same thing as a virtual social world?
How you answer that question is also where you think the future of social networking is headed. For anyone who’s read Ernest Cline’s acclaimed virtual reality book “Ready Player One” (currently being made into a blockbuster sci-fi movie by Steven Spielberg), the answer is that a social virtual world is going to be way more interesting than a virtual social world. In fact, people might find that it’s so much more interesting that they unplug from the real world and spend every possible waking moment within the virtual world.