You've probably given someone a virtual gift on Facebook before, but as of now, if you gift someone something for their special day through Facebook's handy little Gift Shop interface, you'll get a surprising new option--you can now spend Facebook credits to send them a real-life, physical present too.
Remember the dramatic bit in Tron where Jeff Bridges's real-world character is digitized and whisked away into an artificial reality world? This new Facebook real-world/virtual world crossover trick is a bit like that, only in reverse. And more fluffy, and with fewer laser special effects. It's thanks to a change in Facebook's merchant platform rules that'll now let third party-developed virtual gifts into the Gift Store as well as enabling connections to real-life merchants.
It's pretty simple, really--the third-party virtual gifts will cost you the typical $1 or 10 Facebook Credits to send to someone, but the real-life gifts will have a more realistic, high value--think $50 (500 Facebook Credits) for a bunch of flowers or a teddy bear, perhaps. When you choose to send a physical gift, you'll get the usual Facebook-style pop-up window, just augmented with boxes for the delivery address. The initial roll-out is a trial, and it's limited to a test user-base and four retailers--American Greetings Interactive, GreetBeatz, Someecards, and Real Gifts.
But it won't be long, I suspect, before the system gets a global roll-out, as the potential of the idea is just enormous. Facebook is already the go-to social networking tool for millions of users, and it's still growing fast. When you spot a friend's birthday is upcoming in FB's useful little window (useful, that is, for forgetful types like myself) it's pretty easy to click on their name and send a greeting or a virtual gift--and the idea that you could also send a real one from the same click-throughs without having to surf to an online gift-service is going to tempt many people, I think. It's all about the massive convenience of the system.
And it's a tempting glimpse at the future--Facebook's existence is almost entirely virtual, but this foray into real-world social interaction is interesting. If Facebook expands on the idea, what other parts of the social network could benefit from a physical presence? Can we expect physical event invites in the mail (handy for Facebook-addict weddings)? Or maybe the mailman will clunk up our steps with a clinking parcel containing real Belgian beer (much more satisfying than the pixelated type)? We won't have long to find out--developers will sniff the scent of money on this idea, and present us with a plethora of surprisingly real fare.