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At Facebook, a sharpening focus on virtual reality

Zach Miners | March 30, 2015
In 10 years, there may be no need to check Facebook's site to see what that friend overseas is up to. You might just pick up a pair of goggles, reach out and hold her hand at her birthday party.

In 10 years, there may be no need to check Facebook's site to see what that friend overseas is up to. You might just pick up a pair of goggles, reach out and hold her hand at her birthday party.

You won't have to actually be there. The experience could be made possible through virtual reality.

Facebook sees it as a radical and important technology that in the not-too-distant future could provide new ways to help people connect and transport them to places that are out of reach or don't even exist. Providing those experiences is among Facebook's ambitious long-term goals, along with providing Internet access through aerial drones and deepening its artificial intelligence technology to better understand what people want.

Take the birthday scenario: Using a future headset from Facebook's Oculus VR division, it might be possible for a person to watch a three-dimensional video of the event, move around the room, and with specialized sensors, touch his friend. It would be a dramatic play on the concept of teleportation, letting someone feel like they're somewhere when they're not. But Facebook just might be able to pull it off.

The company bought Oculus VR last year for roughly US$2 billion, baffling observers. Now, Facebook's VR ambitions are coming more into focus. On Thursday, Facebook and Oculus executives laid out their vision for the future of virtual reality and gave some clues about possible applications of the technology at Facebook's F8 developer conference in San Francisco.

"Moments of bringing people together is what we're trying to do at Facebook. It's the core of our mission," whether those are real or virtual, said Mike Schroepfer, chief technology officer at the company, during a keynote talk at the conference.

The company is already tinkering with virtual presence. At the event, attendees could strap on the Samsung Gear VR, made in partnership with Oculus, and see a real-time, 360-degree view of Facebook's campus in nearby Menlo Park. Facebook had six GoPro cameras set up on the campus and stitched together the views from them to create the experience.

The concept of virtual presence is not new, and virtual reality has had its share of stumbles over the years. Virtual Boy, the gaming console released by Nintendo in the mid-nineties, sought to provide a more immersive experience than other consoles of the time, transporting users into the game with a screen that covered the gamer's entire field of vision. But many users just got headaches or became nauseated. Virtual Boy was only out for a year before it was discontinued.

Will it take a social networking company to do it right? The details of Facebook's VR plans aren't clear. But it's clear that Facebook sees virtual reality as an extension of social networking, and perhaps more. Until now, many of the ideas about consumer uses of virtual reality have revolved around gaming and entertainment, like the ability to watch a concert in a full 360-degree view. Facebook has broader goals.

 

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