February 24, 2016
Mark Zuckerberg, Virtual Reality, And The Fear Of Zombification

Will Mark Zuckerberg turn us all into zombies?

That essentially seemed to be the tone of the conversation on the internet once Zuckerberg posted the photo above on his Facebook page.

The photo was clicked at a Samsung event in Barcelona, Spain, where the company was showcasing its virtual reality headset Gear VR, made in association with FB's Oculus. In the photo, you can see the VR headset strapped over the eyes of everyone except Mark, who strolls by the crowd virtually unnoticed.

And that's exactly what is creeping people out.

As Romi Kuntsman, a commenter on Zuckerberg's Facebook post, put it (receiving over 11,500 likes just for this one comment).

"Mark -- doesn't it feel strange to be the only one walking with your real eyes, while everyone else are zombies in the matrix?"
These words capture perfectly the general feeling of unease, an expected suspicion for a new technology that people are yet to fully understand or experience.

For most people, virtual reality is something meant for video-game players. They still don't associate it with their regular, everyday life. But when Facebook bought the VR company Oculus in 2014, the social networking giant was clearly looking beyond video games.

Here's what Zuckerberg wrote after acquiring Oculus two years back.

"But this is just the start. 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."
A new communication platform, that's the operative phrase here.

The Facebook of the future, as envisioned by Mark Zuckerberg, is not something that simply resides on your computer or your phone, it is something that envelops your entire human presence.

It is very much possible that in the future you could be living inside Facebook rather than outside it as you do now.

And that's what is freaking people out, not the exact knowledge, not the certainty, but a kind of vague premonition of the shape of things to come.

Mark Zuckerberg At VR Event In Barcelona Spain
Mark Zuckerberg at the Samsung event in Barcelona [Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images]Previously, for the layperson at least, internet and virtual reality (of the immersive kind) were two separate things.

Now, with a single photograph, both have suddenly, frightfully, come together. Zuckerberg stands in for the internet here, and the headset-wearing guys represent virtual reality. Together in one frame, they transmit an alien, unsettling vision of the future.

In that sense this is a historic photograph. A meeting point of two streams of technologies that people had not expected to meet this soon.

Their reactions are understandable.

Here's Camilo Aponte, another commenter on Zuckerberg's FB post.

"Creepy as hell! The Matrix is here! This is not exciting this is stupid! Yes yes, I'm using FB and internet, but still I use my eyes and my nose in order to feel this world, soon it won't be necessary."
Not all are this alarmist though. Here's a young commenter Franklin Yao, coming to Zuckerberg's defense in his imperfect, broken English.
"Well creepy or not, the world only move forward. It doesn't really matter what us think of it. The technology will always improve, the best is to learn and adept rather than thinking about the good old days." (sic)
The above comment somehow captures how it may all unfold eventually: in a reluctant acceptance, in adaptation.

Or it may go the other way round completely, with no reluctance at all. This is what Mike Elgan wrote last year in a fascinating piece in Computerworld.

"The emotional power and awe-inducing effect of virtual reality is something the public is not expecting. I believe social interaction in virtual reality will be the most addictive aspect of the technology, and -- dare I predict -- it will be the most addictive experience ever introduced."
Addiction to social VR, that's another crazy-future scenario. Die-hard fans of Second Life, the online virtual world, still roam their second worlds (now with Oculus), but the enthusiasm for it among netizens in general has faded over the years. Facebook will have to come up with something radically different to entice, and then retain, a fresh crop of users.

Meanwhile, in the here and now, the Zuckerberg photograph has already ignited the imaginations of the irrepressible meme artists of the internet. Here are a few samples.

[Image via Facebook/Mark Zuckerberg]