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.