Facebook may lure teen users back with virtual reality promise

Social net pays out $2B for Oculus and its vision of immersive online games

After admitting last year that it was losing traction with teenage users, Facebook may have spent $2 billion to lure some of them back.

Late on Tuesday, Facebook said it had reached a deal to acquire Oculus VR Inc., a company that makes virtual reality gaming glasses.

The headset, called the Oculus Rift, is designed to give gamers a 100-degree, 3D field of view. Oculus hasn't shipped a consumer-ready product, but it has released a developer kit for the glasses.

Facebook is buying virtual reality startup Oculus VR for about $2 billion dollars. Oculus makes the Rift virtual reality headset thats received more than 75,000 orders for development kits. Follow reporter Melissa Aparicio on Twitter @MelisAparicio

That means Facebook has paid a huge bundle of money for a company that hasn't shipped a product. The company also made its first inroad into hardware, which can be a tricky road to navigate for a social networking company.

Why would Facebook do all of this for a company that is working on gaming glasses?

It may be to get the attention, and the online time, of young users.

"Facebook believes that they can use Oculus to reach a different demographic, a teenage gamer demographic," said Patrick Moorhead, an analyst with Moor Insights & Strategy. "Facebook realizes that user engagement is the key to monetizing social media. The highest user engagement could come through virtual reality via the Oculus VR."

The problem is that gamers who would be enticed by an immersive gaming environment, as opposed to something more casual and 2D like Facebook's popular Farmville, is just a segment of the lucrative 18- to 35-year-old demographic.

However, it's segment that Facebook is looking at closely.

In November, David Ebersman, Facebook's chief financial officer, said during the company's quarterly earnings call that the social network is struggling to keep teenagers' attention.

"We did see a decrease in [teenage] daily users [during the quarter], especially younger teens," said Ebersman, who went on to call the network's teen user base "stable."

With 1.2 billion monthly active users and 874 million mobile monthly active users, Facebook has been doing better with older users, who may be the uncles, aunts and grandparents of what would be their preferred teen base.

As far back as 2009, a study released by iStrategyLabs showed that U.S. high school and college-age users were on the decline at Facebook even as its popularity among the 55-and-older crowd was booming . In fact, the number of older Facebook users showed staggering growth in the first half of 2009 -- up 513.7%.

This isn't a new problem for Facebook, but it appears to be getting worse, which stings on multiple levels. The social network was originally launched for college students but now it's lost enough cool factor that teens and college-age students are less engaged, ditching Facebook for social alternatives, like Twitter and Snapchat.

Losing younger users also is a problem for Facebook because once users starts with a social network, making connections with family, friends and colleagues, they tend to stick with it. If Facebook isn't pulling in teenagers, it's losing out on decades of what could be a solid user base.

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