Because I write about video games, and because the Oculus Rift, Facebook's new moonshot, is for the time being a gaming device, many of my friends and colleagues have, in the past day, approached me in person and virtually, with questions. Questions like:
"What is an Oculus Rift?"
"Can you please explain this to me?"
"Why is this happening, Joe?"
My friends and colleagues — people who follow the news, who buy technology, and who like to be informed about the next big thing — are not actually sure that the "future" will comprise the virtual reality "dream of science fiction," as Zuckerberg put it — as though all science fiction dreams are the same dream. It is also not clear to all of them what, exactly, the Oculus Rift is.
So let me take this chance to enhance your perspective: The Oculus Rift is a giant black box that you strap to your face, obscuring your eyes and nose, in order to help you pretend that you are in other places doing other things. To be sure, it is poised to be the best and most affordable giant black box that you strap to your face in order to help you pretend that you are in other places doing other things, but that is all it is.
Another way of putting it is that the Oculus Rift is a big, face-obscuring, strap-on fantasy device, and I don't want it to be part of my daily life. And I don't think a lot of Americans will want that either.
Of course, if you listen to Zuckerberg, the Rift — and VR in general — will be ubiquitous in short order: "This kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people." The truth is that until yesterday, the Oculus Rift was seen, rightly, as a niche product — one with vague crossover potential — built by a team of superfans for the superfans who funded them.
Some facts: The creator of the Oculus Rift is a message-board-weaned 21-year-old named Palmer Luckey who brags about having the largest private collection of VR devices in the world. His new mentor at Oculus is the co-creator of Doom, John Carmack, whose passions outside of gaming are rocketry and Ron Paul. Facebook did not acquire, as Zuckerberg suggests, the next iPhone, but a hobbyist device built by a very particular kind of gaming enthusiast for other enthusiasts.
So it's worth asking, when we think about the Rift, what exactly its makers and its fans are so enthusiastic about.
Gamer culture is huge and multifaceted. But there is undeniably a strain of it — a decreasingly prevalent one, I think — that is about dropping out of life, dimming the lights, and escaping into less challenging and less complex worlds. (If you don't believe me, go have a look at r/shittybattlestations, a subreddit dedicated to images of the awful and impressive lengths people go to in order to construct their lairs. One is actually just a beanbag chair, a television, a game console, a dirt floor, and two jugs of water; subsistence gaming.)
The Oculus Rift is undeniably of this culture, the kind that wants a "gaming treadmill" to enhance "realism," and a mock-up carbine for the same reason (and a not-too-distant cousin of the kind that builds applications like the one pictured above). That's quite literally why Luckey set out to built the Rift — to enhance his unsatisfactory gaming experience. There's nothing wrong with this hobby, but it's a hobby, not a techno-social movement. And it's one with social connotations that I don't particularly want to transmit. To me, the Oculus Rift is like wearing your parents' basement on your face.
Last week I started a Tumblr called White Men Wearin' Oculus Rifts, which is just images of white men wearing Oculus Rifts. I did this mostly because I find the sight of unshaved and lumpy Caucasians wearing what appear to be makeshift bondage masks while making orgasmic mouth shapes intrinsically hilarious. I also hoped to gently point out that the hype anointing the device as transformative and fantastical and groundbreaking comes from a fairly homogenous group of humans, and that this group, due to their homogeneity, may have a limited or incomplete perspective on what counts as transformative and fantastical and groundbreaking.
Of course, what matters in yesterday's transaction is Mark Zuckerberg's perspective on what is transformative and groundbreaking, and if his track record means anything, that means digitally re-creating human social functions a way that a mass audience finds overwhelmingly compelling. In that sense, the Rift is a quintessentially Zuckerbergian fantasy, a device that puts messy human experience in parentheses and may one day augment his social platform with, as he put it yesterday, "Details like being able to make eye contact with someone." Details!
Yet the assumption that a mass audience of humans will want or even acquiesce to wearing a device that was intended as an escapist accessory for hardcore gamers strikes me as crazy. I mean, the thing looks absolutely ridiculous. And make no mistake, the "vision" Zuckerberg shared yesterday is a true fantasy of and for the basement champions, the kind who build play empires and the kind who build multibillion-dollar websites alike. It's a statement of profound arrogance reflecting deep emotional and interpersonal ignorance and makes crazy assumptions about humans who aren't (mostly white, male) futurists.
Obviously, the Facebook Helmet that comes to market may look and feel different than the Oculus Rift in its current form—though Facebook denies rumors to that effect. And Facebook has bought a set of tools that Zuckerberg thinks will not just express his dream of the future but may also enrich his company (imagine, for example, a partnership with the NBA or a music label to stream live events). But as long as it takes the shape of a face-occluding, vision-blocking mask, it will be the dream of a very small segment of our country, one that happens to wield a disproportionate influence over the technology we buy. It's a moonshot for thousands, not Facebook's audience of over a billion.
Thankfully, reality and the market have a way of correcting fantastical assumptions, and the good news is that the Rift will fly straight into the headwinds of American media consumption. The way we watch and play now, as has been discussed endlessly, is half-distracted and half-amused: with a tablet or a laptop nearby, with Facebook (ha!) and Twitter open, with a barrage of stimuli, virtual and real, competing for our attention. The idea that most Americans will have the time, the space, or the inclination to strap on and completely tune out feels obviously wrong.
For the time being, we'll have to endure techno-utopian newspeak about "opening new worlds" and "social potential" (which, as Will Oremus pointed out today in Slate, is laughable given the antisocial design of the Rift). I say: Get a head start. Talk to someone new. Make eye contact. Take a class. Take a road trip. Whatever floats your boat. And don't let people who are afraid of reality tell you that you need to buy a new one.
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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