Virtual reality, the future of sharing and the end of writing

At the F8 2015 conference earlier this week, Facebook shared some of its near-future plans with an audience of more than 2,500 developers creating apps and experiences for Facebook’s staggering user base of 1.39 billion people.

Taken together, Facebook’s native functionality and the functionality of its acquisitions cover all four slices of its “Future of Sharing” graphic, presented as a video clip during Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote.

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Text, video and image sharing are all handled by the Facebook platform itself. On the acquisition side, WhatsApp dominates text sharing; Instagram owns image sharing; and, most recently, the $2 billion USD purchase of virtual reality juggernaut Oculus positions Facebook to command VR sharing.

That trend line, though

The graphic is more than an illustration of the evolution of sharing on the web (or Facebook) — it’s a manifesto. The confident upward trajectory of the trend line suggests that not only are we progressing from text to VR, but that each successive medium is somehow superior. That form of superiority — usage growth? richness of experience? monetary gain? — is left intentionally vague.

The value of a sharing medium is almost entirely dependent upon its use case. Here, we’re being presented with a travel scenario: “Wow, Italy is so beautiful!” It’s hard to deny that the VR expression of this statement is incredibly compelling. Leaving aside the technical challenges (they will be solved in time), sharing a VR travel experience is more than a substitute for actually being there — it presents a god-like level of control and exploration that isn’t even possible in real life.

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St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City

Think you’ve seen St. Peter’s Basilica? Try flying around its rotunda, ducking in and out of shafts of sunlight like a heavenly bird.

With VR, you’re not sharing an experience so much as a dream of that experience, a prismatic scattering of place and sensory data that lets you, the viewer/user, modulate your own perception.

The end of writing?

Okay, VR and the travel use case make sense. What about other contexts?

The superiority of VR is less certain if I’m trying to share a poem or a song. While a poem or song could be “gussied up” as an image, video or possibly a VR experience, doing so invariably adds to the original material in a way that fundamentally alters its nature. In other words, to share just a poem or just a song is something left to simpler forms of sharing. And “simpler” is increasingly linked with “older.”

The question is: Will people want to share just a poem or just a song? If the exploding growth of Instagram among younger generations is any indication of the future, the answer is quite probably, “no.”

It’s easy to forget that text — that is, written language — is also a technology. It was created out of necessity, and like all technologies, it can be rendered obsolete. Or if not obsolete, then at least irrelevant.

What the entire Mark Zuckerberg presentation from F8

Header image by Sarah Price (Creative Commons license)

2 thoughts on “Virtual reality, the future of sharing and the end of writing

  1. Writing is a form of communication. You will always need to express ideas verbally or through the written word. Until seamless VR interaction becomes possible in the same way as an instant messaging service, you will still need writing and writers. If I am in St Peter’s, I’d appreciate knowing the history and people behind its grandeur. Someone has to write that, or be instantly on hand to explain it to me.

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