In 2010, I was in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show and Sony was telling me to put on my 3D glasses to watch a video of Taylor Swift performing a song. The tech press, investors and other showgoers around me dutifully grabbed their provided glasses, put them over their eyes and waited for the show.
I looked around, a bit gobsmacked at what I was seeing. It's not weird that Sony would show off its 3D technology, especially in 2010, but Taylor Swift was right there. Onstage. Just a few feet away. The assorted throngs of people were looking away from the performance to check out the televisions, to see the live 3D feed. Ignoring Taylor Swift.
It's a story I've told often to point out how the ridiculousness of press events and technology demonstrations. I don't really care how great your technology is, if you put Taylor Swift in front of me, I'm going to look at Taylor Swift.
Which brings us to Mark Zuckerberg.
This is the picture that's going around social media, from Samsung's announcement of its new phones, which come free with the Gear VR virtual reality device if you pre-order now. Outside of context, it doesn't look great. In fact, it looks downright scary.
"Zuckerberg has said that, in his vision for the future, these virtual experiences will be fundamentally social," a Washington Post story stated. "But the photo suggests something quite different: Hundreds of people share a physical space, but no perception, no experience, no phenomenological anchor. The communality of a conference (literally from conferre, 'to bring together') is thrown over for a series of hyper-individualized bubbles. And you’re reminded, from Zuckerberg’s awkward semi-smile, that the man who owns the bubbles also owns what’s in them. That controlling virtual reality, in other words, is only a step from controlling reality itself."
That's terrifying, right? The man behind Facebook striding around, while disconnected press and pundits sat in their virtual reality headsets, missing the real story.
It's also bullshit. The reality is that this shot was taken near the beginning of an inspired piece of stagecraft. As always, context matters.
"The setup was great: journalists were invited to watch a virtual reality demo using Samsung's Gear VR headsets, and when the time came to remove them, there was Mark Zuckerberg standing in the middle of the stage, wearing his familiar gray T-shirt," The Verge reported.
"Cue a moment of confused gasps of excitement, followed by an escalating stampede of journalists and photographers toward the stage," the story continued. "Zuckerberg was there to talk up Facebook and Samsung's VR partnership, but his words went mostly unheard as everyone was too busy trying to capture an image of him. It was the tech celebrity equivalent of Bieber mania. And it was a little bit scary. Or maybe a lot, since Zuckerberg walked off the stage with sweat patches under his arms. In any case, the desired outcome of drumming up hype was achieved."
The Washington Post story does discuss the fact those in attendance removed the headset and were amazed to see Zuckerberg in front of them, but it, like many of the posts I've seen on social media, are obsessed with what the image appears to show, not the reality of the scene being captured.
The point wasn't to remove the crowd from the very immediate reality of what was in front of them, it was a ruse that was designed to not only get people to try the technology but also to avert their eyes for a few moments to allow Zuckerberg to make an entrance that felt magical. The value wasn't in locking people away, but creating a moment where the sudden, physical presence of one of the most powerful people in tech made an impression. The virtual was the trick, the reality was the important thing.
So while it may be fun to make jokes to rack up the retweets and faves ...
Drug dealers never consume. pic.twitter.com/LoP0YRryhu— El Mahdi (@L_badikho) February 21, 2016
This isn't anything to be scared of or intimidated by. What it shows is that Zuckerberg knows both the power of the virtual — everyone in the audience was willing to try the new shiny toy — and the importance of the real. The point wasn't that people weren't virtually there in the moment this picture was taken, but that he was physically present in the presentation after that moment.
This is the sort of image from the event that won't go viral: Mark Zuckerberg in front of the crowd, forcefully arguing about the future of virtual reality. He sounds and looks like any other tech evangelist, not a super villain walking among the drugged masses.
"I think about my baby daughter and the way I want to remember when she takes her first steps ... I want to capture the whole scene," he said. "So, I hope we can take a 360 video. So that way, even if my parents and my family aren't there to experience it in person, they can feel like they're right there with us. VR is the next platform, where anyone can create and experience anything they want."
This isn't isolating and it's not exactly scary. It's far from dystopian. He's talking about the act of bringing people together, of finding a new way to freeze time and share it with others. And he's doing it in person, during a live event for a company who is heavily committed to virtual reality along with Facebook. The sinister overtones of the viral image disappear when seen in the full context of the speech and how it was presented.
"VR is going to be the most social platform," Zuckerberg said. "Now, that's also why we've worked with Samsung, to deliver Gear VR. Gear VR is by far the best mobile VR experience. And that's because it combines the best hardware, from Samsung, with the best software — from Facebook, with Oculus."
The message may have been a bit corporate, but nothing about it was scary. This wasn't Sony missing the point of having Taylor Swift live on stage, this was a very savvy businessperson who understood the importance of showing up.