Oculus: The Next Newton, or The Next iPhone?
Hero image
Harness Ambiguity.

I was asked how virtual reality might affect businesses. Facebook's $2B investment in Oculus Rift signals the rise of VUIs. Challenges remain, but VR could become mainstream across industries. While gaming and social tools are closer to adoption, enterprise applications are further away. The potential impact on humanity is particularly intriguing.

Facebook created quite the stir in the tech world this spring with its $2 billion acquisition of Oculus Rift (maker of virtual reality headsets; former star of the crowdsourcing phenom Kickstarter). Having worked with many enterprise software companies, I was asked how virtual reality could affect businesses. Interesting question. Virtual and augmented reality are usually thought of in consumer settings. But with the headline-grabbing $2B investment by Facebook, all software domains — from Farmville to CRM (Customer Relationship Management) — should be on notice that the virtual user interface (VUI) is coming.

Virtual reality isn’t new, but with Zuckerberg putting his money down, and Google Glass teaming up with well-known fashion companies, it could soon move from the cutting edge to industry-level disruption, much as the iPhone did only 7 years ago. Software and apps are pervasively integrated into our entire lives. It would be hard to live, work, and play in today’s society without them. Now think of all of the ways you use software and apps, and imagine them in a virtual setting: healthcare, education, military, mobile apps, and pure socializing all could see virtual reality applications becoming mainstream. The possibilities are as limitless as entrepreneurs’ imaginations.

"The technology has been moving at a crawl up until two years ago," Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told Fortune. "From a technological standpoint, the hardware is becoming lighter, more realistic, and cheaper. From a software standpoint, we have passed the tipping point."

But is Oculus the $2B leader in this new platform space? Or is it another Newton, Apple's archetypal too-early failed predecessor to the small screen success of the iPhone? Virtual and augmented reality still have lots of issues to sort out — and not just the cost (Google Glass is now selling to the public for $1,500) and current lack of applications. Consider cybersickness: Motion sickness induced by the same intense virtual stimuli that makes the “reality” could be a real problem on the path to mainstream adoption. And it remains to be seen exactly why the average person needs this in their lives.

Does it add real value and truly disrupt and revolutionize how we communicate? Or will it remain an expensive toy?

I hope it’s the former. Gaming and social tools seem right around the corner. Enterprise adoption, while intriguing, is still a ways out. It’s the impact on humanity that interests me the most. For example, in healthcare we’ve seen some really neat applications over the last few years: Among others, we've seen micro-cameras inserted into the body to allow doctors to see where they are operating; and remote doctoring, allowing experts to talk to patients or even guide surgery with remotely controlled tools from across the world. Similar applications in a virtual setting are potential great fits for these new technologies.

Perhaps the augmented reality platform, like Google Glass, has the most potential to more broadly impact wider adoption, particularly in business applications. Full virtual immersion, like Oculus Rift, dramatically changes the user interface, while augmented systems accentuate real life. Consider the military uses for augmented reality that we’ve seen in recent years (in searching through cities, for example). That use is fascinating, and from there it's not hard to think of regular people using augmented reality systems in day-to-day city life, airports, malls, tourist destinations, or anything else that has a broader environment to experience. Then it’s not too much of a leap to consider manipulating HR and CRM systems (like Tom Cruise in Minority Report), assessing inventory in a giant warehouse with a head-mounted display (like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix) or flying through the sky avoiding buildings (like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man). OK, that last one might take a little longer — especially in enterprise settings.

Regardless, it’s an interesting road ahead, and I look forward to seeing what happens.