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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 time, virtual reality could expand the experience of the Facebook timeline, with new ways for people to interact with each other, said Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus, during a talk on Thursday at F8.

Schroepfer, Facebook's chief technology officer, shared a video of him blowing out the candles on his 40th birthday. Virtual reality could let others share and partake in that experience, he said.

We're at the point now where the technology is on its way to making that possible, and it's becoming cheaper, Abrash and Schroepfer said. The Oculus Crescent Bay headset, for example, provides a 360-degree field of view by connecting with a camera that knows when you turn around. You can explore a chamber in an imaginary castle like you would explore an unfamiliar place in real life.

Trying out Crescent Bay at F8, I found myself reaching out with my hands, wanting to grab things like a dragon's tail or some other unreal creature. But the system could not register my hand movements; instead I ended up grasping the wall in front of where I was actually standing.

That lack of tactile feedback is an aspect of the technology that needs to be improved. Also, the ability to see your virtual self, possibly as an avatar, is an area ripe for development, Abrash said.

Crescent Bay is one prototype of the device Oculus has been working on for years, called the Rift. Some early versions of the Rift have shipped to developers and to early Kickstarter backers, but it hasn't gone on sale yet.

Facebook focused on virtual reality at F8 to get developers interested in the concept and inspire them to create applications.

Attendees seemed excited about Facebook's plans to provide social, immersive VR experiences. At least a few were cautiously optimistic that the company could pull it off.

"They seem determined," said Patrick Bottne, CEO at AppSpotr, which provides tools to help developers build apps.

Meanwhile, other companies are also becoming active in virtual reality, sensing a market. Competitors include Sony, with Project Morpheus, Microsoft, with HoloLens; and perhaps even Google, which is said to be developing a virtual reality version of Android.

But Facebook is well-positioned to produce something that gains mainstream acceptance, partly because of its acquisition of Oculus and its ties to the larger developer community, said Brian Blau, an industry analyst at Gartner who has been tracking virtual reality for more than 20 years.

It might just take a while for something big to happen, he said. "What will the killer app for VR be 10 years from now? The truth is we don't know yet," he said.

 

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