Why I hope the Facebook/Oculus vision doesn’t become our primary computing UI

Has the future of human-computer interfaces taken a wrong turn?

Here I am, looking at the rise of connectivity in everything and the rise on contextual intelligence apparent in services like Google Now, hoping that I can stop spending my days starting at a tiny screen and live a life aided by technology as opposed to immersed in it. But then I learned that Facebook is planning to pay $2 billion for Oculus VR, the virtual reality gaming headset maker, and read what founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote on his timeline about the deal:

After games, we’re going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side 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.

This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.

The internet has long been a way to bridge distance. Starting with email and leading to services like Skype or FaceTime, we’ve been able to add immediacy and amazing amounts of context to our conversations and interaction with people far away with a click of a button. My younger brother learned Mandarin from someone in China using Skype.

An extension of today’s tech or a transition?

Adding virtual reality to this equation with a headset doesn’t feel like it’s a new communications platform. It feels like an extension of what we have today, only with avatars as opposed to some type of 360-degree live streaming. I’ve experienced a few minutes of a chemistry class designed for kids using the Oculus Rift with a Leap Motion gesture controller taped to the top, and it was immersive and neat, but it also was nothing like real life.

Every object and interaction had to be coded, and the effort to render an entire chemistry classroom realistic meant that the version felt a bit flat. The designers explained that they want to let people in the virtual classroom get up and go to a shelf to pick up a book, and then be able to read it in the virtual world, but that was a ways off. Without some type of hyperlink technology there wasn’t a way to bring in an entire book and let someone read it easily.

So when Zuckerberg writes about being courtside at a game or consulting with a doctor, is he excited about virtual reality or being able to display all aspects of actual reality? But more important, is he envisioning a world that looks more like Minority Report, where the technology is in your face (or on it) at all times and you’re constantly tuned into screens?

Screens or things?

My hope is that instead of using technology to map our physical world into some kind of Facebook-generated virtual world, we use technology to be able to escape the virtual world. Using context and connected devices, we’d know when we need to turn our attention online because something in our physical environment will let us know. It could be as simple as your watch vibrating when you get an important email or having your desk give you a subtle up and down motion if you’ve been sitting at it for too long.

Instead of Minority Report, we end up with a world as envisioned in Her, where the technology is still impressive, but it also can fade into the background so people can lead lives where they communicate face-to-face in the real world. Or perhaps I’m old, and people’s normal lives are evolving to treat virtual interactions as highly as real-world ones.

In that case, offering an immersive and social experience via virtual reality makes sense, although I would mourn having my eyeballs glued to a screen for even more of my day. After missing the boat on mobile, Zuckerberg clearly sees a future in this platform that’s worth gambling on, but I feel that if he’s right, we’ll have lost a bit of our humanity.