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Announcing its second blockbuster deal in as many months, Facebook said Tuesday it will pay more than $2 billion in cash and stock for Oculus VR, a small startup that's made a big splash with its high-end prototypes of "virtual reality" systems for electronic games.

Skeptics immediately questioned the link between social networking and virtual-reality technology, which has been viewed as mostly suited for immersive games, military training and the like. But Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said he's convinced the Southern California startup is at the forefront of the next major wave in computing and communications.

"Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences. This can change the way we communicate with our friends, family and colleagues," Zuckerberg told analysts. Drawing a parallel to the way mobile devices are replacing desktop computers, he predicted that virtual reality systems will emerge as a popular medium for entertainment, education and other uses -- even doctor visits.

Zuckerberg negotiated to buy the Irvine-based company in just seven days, according to a source familiar with the events, although he and other Facebook executives first visited the company and tried its technology a few months ago. Oculus VR was founded by Palmer Luckey, a 21-year-old software developer and self-described science fiction enthusiast, less than two years ago; CEO Brendan Iribe is a veteran of previous startups.

Coming just a month after Facebook agreed to pay an eye-popping $19 billion for online messaging service WhatsApp, analysts said the Oculus deal demonstrates Zuckerberg's determination to push the world's largest social networking company into new business sectors and technologies.

It also shows the tremendous pressure on major Internet companies like Facebook and Google to acquire promising new technology ahead of their rivals. The two Internet giants reportedly made competing offers in several recent deals, including the WhatsApp acquisition, and have been racing to hire talented scientists in such cutting-edge fields as artificial intelligence.

FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2014 file photo, show attendees play a video game wearing  Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets at the Intel booth at the
FILE - In this Jan. 7, 2014 file photo, show attendees play a video game wearing Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets at the Intel booth at the International Consumer Electronics Show(CES), in Las Vegas. Facebook said Tuesday, March 25, 2014, it has agreed to buy Oculus for $2 billion, betting that its virtual reality may be a new way for people to communicate, learn or be entertained. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) ( Jae C. Hong )

Google has dabbled in augmented reality, as well, by developing products like the wearable computer known as Glass, which can project information on a headset screen while its wearer is walking or moving through the real world.

Oculus impressed audiences at recent technology conferences by showing off a prototype headset, called Oculus Rift, which surrounds the wearer with sights and sounds that simulate stepping into a different landscape or imaginary setting -- something akin to the immersive "holodeck" experience in science fiction's Star Trek. Reviewers have called the effect strikingly realistic.

"Virtual worlds are a new medium, just like DOS was a medium and the Web browser and Android and iPhone smartphones," said Antonio Rodriguez, an Oculus board member and general partner at venture firm Matrix Partners, which took part in two funding rounds for the startup.

Noting that Facebook was criticized for being slow to shift from desktop PCs to the mobile computing model, Rodriguez added: "If you're Mark Zuckerberg and want to be sure you are early to the next medium, what's better than to go with the dominant company in this area?"

But one expert said he's skeptical that Facebook can deliver on Zuckerberg's vision for virtual reality.

"Virtual reality inherently has been a singular experience. It hasn't been social," said Brian Blau, a Gartner technology analyst and computer scientist who has worked at virtual reality companies.

While virtual reality could be an appealing feature in multiplayer electronic games, Blau added, there are vast technological challenges in designing a system that works for one person, "let alone for multiple people."

Zuckerberg, however, told analysts on a conference call that recent advances in computer hardware have substantially lowered the cost of powerful processors and other components needed to create realistic, immersive experiences. He also boasted that Oculus VR has already hired many of the best engineers in the field.

At least one other major tech company, Sony, has also announced plans to build a virtual reality system for electronic gaming. Neither Sony nor Oculus have yet released a consumer product, though Oculus says it's received orders from independent software developers for 75,000 prototypes that can be used to create new games and applications.

Facebook's first priority will be helping its new subsidiary finish building a working product and bring it to market, according to Zuckerberg, who said other applications will come over time. He said Facebook will develop software and services around the Oculus technology and perhaps seek to profit by selling virtual goods or advertising down the line.

"We'll have to figure that out," he added.

When analysts questioned Zuckerberg during the conference call about the financial strategy behind Facebook's acquisitions, he described the WhatsApp and Oculus deals as rare opportunities and said the recent deal pace is unlikely to continue.

Oculus raised some of its initial financing through the online funding site Kickstarter, although it later garnered $91 million in venture capital, including a major round led by Facebook director Marc Andreessen's firm. Andreessen said on his Twitter account that he recused himself from the negotiations.

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