When Facebook announced that it was buying virtual reality headset maker Oculus for $2 billion last week, the jokes were immediate and obvious: If you think Google's Glassholes are annoying, wait til you run into someone on the street wearing a ginormous Rift headset.
Behind the hilarious mental imagery, there's a jibe at Facebook: CEO Mark Zuckerberg could never pull off a hardware project like Glass, so he bought Oculus to compete with Google in the next phase of computing. Other reports have outright called Rift a Glass rival. But there are a few problems with that premise, beginning with what Rift and Glass are capable of--and what Facebook and Google have in store for the future of their wearable devices.
Unobtrusive vs. immersive
To start, Oculus Rift isn't exactly a wearable--not in the conventional sense. You can't strap on the headset and saunter out into the street to go about your daily activities. Wearable devices like fitness trackers, smartwatches, and even Glass are supposed to be unobtrusive and offer you nuggets of information in the normal course of your life. But Rift is an immersive virtual experience that excludes all else. Once you put it on, you're in the zone. No other activity is possible.
Add to Rift's exclusionary nature the fact that it has to be plugged into a computer at all times to generate the high-resolution graphics that compose its virtual landscapes, and you've got yourself an impractical device for casual wear. Zuckerberg said eventually you'll be able to connect Rift to a mobile device, but that's not happening anytime soon.
The reality you know and the one you don't
The two headsets offer completely different types of experiences. Think of Glass as a smartphone on your face: You can take photos, send texts, use apps, and other activities that are pretty squarely in mobile territory. Gartner analyst Brian Blau, who has studied augmented and virtual reality for the last couple decades, said Glass appears to be headed in the direction of augmented reality. That means instead of just responding to your requests, Glass will overlay information on top of your vision. It can't do that yet, but head-tracking integration would be a natural step for Glass.
Rift, on the other hand, doesn't augment your reality; it throws you into a completely new version of reality. Its most immediate and obvious use case is gaming--players feel like they've teleported into the game's landscape.
"We're not a hardware company"
Where Google is all about Glass as a product--look no further than its efforts to make Glass more stylish with designer partnerships--Zuckerberg thinks of Rift in terms of software and services.
"We're not a hardware company," Zuckerberg explained during a call last Tuesday with analysts and reporters. "We're not going to make a profit off the devices long-term."
Instead, Zuck imagines Rift as a physical extension of your social network, letting you visit places you've never been and feel like you're chatting with friends in person instead of on a screen.
"Gaming is a start," he said. "Once you start getting a network effect around people gaming, there are obvious communication cases. People will build a model of a place far away and you can go see it. It's like teleporting. There's a real breadth of interesting things we haven't seen on a platform before."
Own the future
Neither Glass nor Rift is a widely available product being marketed to consumers. You can't buy either at your local Best Buy. Glass is still in the hands of "Explorers" and developers, and so is Rift. Both are working out the kinks in anticipation of a wider commercial release either this year or next. But while Glass might be closer to the product Google envisions it will be, a wearable smartphone, Rift won't be the virtual social experience Zuckerberg is envisioning for several more years. Blau said the difficulty of creating a high-quality virtual reality experience for a single user has proved difficult enough, let alone building a multi-user world.
"I'm not convinced that virtual reality is inherently social," Blau said. "I think [Zuckerberg] wants to make it social, which is great, but in the 25 years that virtual reality has been popular, we haven't talked about it in that context."
Glass has faced plenty of criticism for its users' often annoying behavior, so much so that the company recently put out etiquette tips for Explorers. But Google is angling for (arguably) wide consumer appeal, where Rift is still being targeted toward hardcore gamers.
"The comparison is more about Facebook and Google both trying to capture a device that is not popular but has a lot of applicability for the future--both augmented reality and virtual reality have been media favorites for many years," Blau said. "In terms of where the technology marketplace is going, wearable devices are thought to be the next platform."
If there's any overlap between Rift and Glass, it's their makers' quest to predict and dominate the technology of tomorrow. Drones that connect the world to the Internet, self-driving cars, robots, face-computers: These companies want to do whatever it takes to not only guide our path to the future, but also to make sure that future is established, beautifully decorated, and as cozy and familiar as the present when we get there.