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Facebook has bought startup Oculus VR, which makes the much-hyped virtual-reality Rift headsets, for $2bn.

The acquisition comes as people spend more time with their pals in digital worlds rather than the physical realm, and Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg wants to tap into that shift.

The acquisition of Oculus VR Inc was announced on Tuesday – and will see the West's largest social network acquire a technologically sophisticated upstart dedicated to persuading people to escape their real lives.

"Virtual reality technology is a strong candidate to emerge as the next social and communications platform," Facebook wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. "Facebook plans to extend Oculus’ existing advantage in gaming to new verticals, including communications, media and entertainment, education and other areas."

Oculus VR will be bought for about $2bn – $1.6bn in 23.1m shares of Facebook common stock and the possibility of $300m extra "on the achievement of certain milestones."

"Oculus's mission is to enable you to experience the impossible. Their technology opens up the possibility of completely new kinds of experiences," gushed Zuckerberg this afternoon, US West Coast time.

"Immersive gaming will be the first, and Oculus already has big plans here that won't be changing and we hope to accelerate."

Then, revealing perhaps he has watched The Matrix a few too many times, Zuck continued: "But this is just the start. After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. 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."

Over at Oculus, co-founder and CEO Brendan Iribe added: "We are excited to work with Mark and the Facebook team to deliver the very best virtual reality platform in the world.

"We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways. It is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning."

Doom creator John Carmack recently left ID Software to take up the chief technology officer role at Oculus VR to help the company fix some of its tech issues, such as the vomit-inducing visual "smearing" that can occur when you move your head too fast. The graphics-programming genius is now, technically, a Facebook employee.

The upstart's VR goggles have also received support from gaming behemoth Valve Software, which is testing support for Oculus Rift in its Steam gaming platform via a service named SteamVR.

Today's acquisition follows Facebook's eye-watering $19bn buy of chat app WhatsApp – another pricey purchase that saw the social network decisively dish out dosh to give it access to a technology that threatened its core business of owning all data pertaining to your online social life. In the short term, WhatsApp's international cheap messaging tech posed a threat to FB as people become ever-more connected across borders.

In the long-term, perhaps Facebook worries that it could be eclipsed by a social network forged in virtual reality, much like the digital worlds predicted by the cyberpunk sci-fi authors Neal Stephenson and William Gibson.

The transaction should close by the second quarter of 2014. Oculus will keep its HQ in Irvine, CA, and will carry on developing the Oculus Rift goggles, which recently saw their second major release: the Dev Kit 2. ®

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