When news broke that Facebook had bought Oculus VR, the makers of the Rift virtual reality headset, analysts did their best to come up with a reasonable interpretation for the purchase.
Some suggested that, as smartphone and tablet sales start to level off, web companies are looking for the next big platform. Others opined that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg simply wants to be the next tech mogul, like Amazon's Jeff Bezos or Telsa Motors Elon Musk.
I'd venture, however, that tech industry watchers might have an easier time coming up with a reason for those heads on Easter Island, or the disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle. That's because, for all its promise, virtual reality is very unlikely to be "the next big thing."
The idea that VR will be a mainstream thing gets something about technology fundamentally wrong: we want devices that adapt to fit our lives, not the other way round. It's not that there isn't a great deal of potential in virtual reality, it could yield some incredible, futuristic experiences. As I've argued elsewhere, a headset that fills your field of vision with a virtually created world could do great things. Gaming would be much more immersive using the technology, and with the right artistic touch, VR's capacity to ask you to see through someone else's eyes might even foster empathy. There are also exciting educational opportunities, as being able to recreate ancient Sumeria or the ocean floor for students will be an intriguing opportunity.
Yet, its applications will remain limited to niche interests because VR also demands too much to become a day-to-day pursuit. Consider that just a few years ago, we were told that 3D television would bring us new immersive films and a whole new way to engage with movies. Instead, consumers yawned. In no small part because the 3-D experience was cumbersome: You had to wear glasses and directly face the TV. As it turns out, despite the fact that 3-D could be neat, most people felt that it wasn't worth interrupting their movie-watching habits for the effect.
When new devices or services really catch on it's because they find a comfortable middle ground between fitting into people's lives while offering them new functionality. It's why Netflix, mobile games, or a television being on in the background have proven so popular: They are activities that add to one's life by filling in the blank spaces, and not asking too much in return.
Consider, consumers have proven resistant to wearing even low-impact technology – whether with 3-D TV glasses or Google Glass – and a VR facemask is much more intrusive than what's come before. A virtual reality headset asks you to shape your time and space around the technology, and by subsuming your sight and hearing it blocks you off from the world as you use it. For all its promise, the primary focus of virtual reality is still hardcore gaming, a pursuit that for better or worse is a niche market.
That VR is and will remain a niche interest isn't necessarily a bad thing. Every entertainment form has its diehard fans: movie buffs with grand home theatres, or bibliophiles with dedicated reading spots. Virtual reality will be an exciting, heart-pounding technology to use, and one that promises to deliver some of the most immersive fictional experiences we can come up with. It's for those same reasons, however, that it won't be the next mainstream thing – and thus Facebook's scooping up of the tech's most promising company will continue to be more than a little baffling.