Clarence Fanto: Zuckerberg's investment virtual error?


LENOX -- Is Mark Zuckerberg, the co-founder and chief executive of Facebook, "nuts" for purchasing the virtual reality headset maker Oculus VR for $2 billion just five weeks after buying the WhatsApp text-and-chat application for $19 billion?

That’s what financial analyst Roger Kay thinks.

In a post on the website this past week, the high-tech specialist noted that the Oculus company -- which envisions a sci-fi future where people will walk around with high-resolution, 3D goggles strapped to their foreheads -- "has no revenue, no product on the market, and unproven technology. At least, WhatsApp has real users. All Oculus has managed to do is put out a prototype virtual-reality headset."

Kay, who tried the headset at a tech show last year, described the experience as "rather disorienting Š I had to remove the goggles fairly quickly to get rid of the nausea they caused."

Even if the product comes on the market, Kay pointed out, "Facebook has no experience in hardware manufacture, distribution, and service. This is a company that you can’t reach by telephone."

As a techno-skeptic who avoids Facebook and other so-called social media, I rather enjoyed this takedown of "Zuck," as Kay calls him. All the more so after encountering a published description of Facebook’s view of the future as "a 3-D virtual world where you feel as if you are hanging out with your friends rather than staring at their pictures."

Never mind the obsolete idea of actual telephonic or even face-to-face communication. That’s so last century!

Of course, there’s always a "rest of the story," so in deference to Zuckerberg, widely celebrated as a visionary and a financial whiz for creating an online behemoth with 1.2 billion users worldwide, here’s his take.

Oculus, he has stated, is "a long-term bet on the future of computing Š a chance to create the most social platform ever and change the way we work, play and communicate."

Even though Oculus’s headset is considered a highly specialized technology for hard-core video games, Zuckerberg outlined his vision in a post, where else, on Facebook: "Imagine enjoying a courtside seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face to face -- just by putting on goggles in your home."

Maybe he’s trying to out-goggle Google, whose high-tech Glass eyewear projects maps and other data on a transparent lens in front of people’s field of vision -- presumably, it’s transparent so users can walk down the street without a risk of collision.

Kay is not an outlier in questioning the rationality of Zuckerberg’s futuristic fantasy -- other analysts have opined that virtual reality is mainly a preoccupation of gamers.

Oculus’s developers disagree as they tout the motion sensors in their headset that shift the wearer’s screen view so he or she feels like an active participant in a virtual world.

As Brendan Iribe, co-founder and CEO of Oculus, told reporters: "If you can see somebody else, and your brain believes they’re right in front of you, you get goosebumps. You start to realize how big this could be." He envisions users socializing at online parties.

In a conference call with reporters, Zuckerberg trotted out statistics showing that gaming occupies 40 percent of the time people spend online, with social communication taking up another 40 percent.

Through Oculus, he suggested, "people will build a model of a place far away and you’ll go see it. It’s like teleporting."

It can be argued that since Facebook has a market value of $184 billion, based on its current stock price, a $2 billion investment is minuscule. Young users have been drifting away from Zuckerberg’s creation in favor of newfangled apps, so it’s understandable that he wants his company to take seemingly wild, long-shot chances.

But it says something about the future we all share when our supposedly most creative, forward-thinking innovators seem intent on helping shape a world where more, perhaps most, of our socializing will be virtual, or make-believe, rather than actual.

Down the rabbit hole into a wonderland we go. "How puzzling all these changes are! I’m never sure what I’m going to be, from one minute to another," said Alice. Lewis Carroll was really on to something when he wrote that Š in 1865.

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