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Why Facebook Is Betting on Virtual Reality as the Next Big Thing

Image: Show attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets

A conference attendee plays a video game wearing Oculus Rift. Jae C. Hong / AP file

First, computers took over our lives. Then came mobile devices. Now, Facebook is betting virtual reality will become just as inextricable from our daily routine.

Facebook announced Tuesday that it will buy Oculus VR, maker of the most advanced virtual-reality headset. It's a $2 billion vote of confidence that augmented reality will be the next major computing platform — in our homes, classrooms, doctor's offices, research labs, sports arenas and more.

"Facebook spending $2 billion is huge validation for the immersive-technology community," Neil Schneider, executive director of the nonprofit Immersive Technology Alliance (ITA), told NBC News. "It's affirmation that there's a committed future."

Facebook believes a key part of that future is the $350 Oculus Rift, which sits over users' eyes to make them feel like they are actually immersed in a 3-D computer-generated environment. Though the device is currently aimed at developers, it became a runaway success — especially in the video-game community.

But Facebook made clear in its acquisition announcement that plans for Oculus go way past gaming.

“Mobile is the platform of today, and now we’re also getting ready for the platforms of tomorrow,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in Facebook's press release.

"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," Zuckerberg wrote in a separate post stressing Oculus' broad potential.

Zuckerberg also imagined a world in which we share not only Facebook status updates and photo albums, but "entire experiences and adventures."

Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University, said Oculus "really fits into Facebook's mission" of connecting the world on a social level.

"When Facebook first began, it was the sharing of text — then it became photos, then videos, and now what's left?" Chiagouris told NBC News. "Virtual reality will be the next battleground for the sharing of experiences."

Facebook and Oculus aren't the only ones on that battlefield: Sony and Microsoft have also developed their own virtual-reality headsets.

"Virtual has been hot in the media lately, and obviously, the Oculus deal makes it even bigger," said the ITA's Schneider, who is also the manager of immersive technology services at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

"But VR has been around for a really long time," he added. "It's certainly not new to our community, just new to the headlines. [Still,] there is a great deal of innovation happening in this space."

Beyond social

That band of virtual-reality developers has been busy exploring Oculus and other virtual-reality technology in a wide swath of fields, from lighthearted entertainment to advanced research.

On the entertainment side, outside of video games developers have also used Oculus to let users explore "The Wall" in "Game of Thrones" and the "Seinfeld" apartment, as well as engage in immersive erotica.

Meanwhile, earlier this month a team of neuroscientists showed off a real-time journey through a person's brain — made possible through a system that combined Oculus Rift with brain scanning and recording. A team at the University of Southern California is using virtual reality therapy in several clinical psychology treatments, including PTSD therapy.

Schneider thinks these applications are poised to explode, given that before the 2012 unveil of Oculus, similar technology cost tens of thousands of dollars. He expects virtual reality will evolve to become what the industry calls augmented reality, in which users will eventually be able to interact with real-life objects.

From there, the possibilites are even broader.

On Oculus' site, a message board devoted to "non-gaming applications" includes posts imagining apps that immerse museum visitors in historical events related to items on display, train first responders to cope with disaster scenarios before they happen in real life, or simply allow runners to go for a jog through a virtual world.

But David Berkowitz, chief marketing officer at digital brand consulting agency MRY, said he "is not at all convinced we'll see people walking down the road with headsets over their faces."

"Anytime you put tech between you and your face, it’s going to create barriers," Berkowitz told NBC News. "You can see the potential in some areas, but I'm skeptical that it is quite as big a deal as Facebook is making it out to be. Virtual reality still has a long, long way to go."

Facebook does plan to give Oculus time to evolve under its new overlord, however. On a Tuesday night conference call, Zuckerberg said Facebook doesn't expect to make money from the Oculus investment for "five or 10 years."

Facebook first plans to get the Rift headset to a consumer market, but he thinks the company will eventually make its money not on the device, but on those services — many of which are still to be imagined.