Coming to Facebook: immersive virtual reality, so your friends can take that …

29 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Coming to Facebook: immersive virtual reality, so your friends can take that vacation with you.

“What is real?” asked Michael Abrash, Oculus VR’s chief scientist, posing that very existential question to Facebook’s annual gathering of developers. (Facebook bought the virtual reality startup for $2 billion last year.) He found the answer in a line from the 1999 sci-fi movie The Matrix: “If real is what you can feel, smell, taste, and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.” In an effort to deconstruct the complexity of virtual reality, Abrash pointed out a number of limitations to human sight: Our eyes have blind spots, have only three color sensors, lack blue photoreceptors in the center, and can only see a fraction of the 360 degrees around us. Facebook has completed its first test of a solar-powered drone that carries internet signal in the skies above the UK, the social network’s chief Mark Zuckerberg has announced.Facebook is aiming to use the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset to create a more immersive social experience through the company’s communications tools.At its annual developer conference this week, executives discussed how commerce and virtual reality would help extend the social-networking giant’s reach.

The solar-powered unmanned aircraft will have the wingspan of a commercial passenger jet, a length equivalent to “six or seven Toyota Priuses” but only weigh about the same as four car tyres. To compensate, the brain often kicks in to fill in any gaps by using contextual clues, such as lighting. “It’s fair to say our experience of the world is an illusion,” he said. “What that means is virtual reality done right truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned.” To prove his point, he demonstrated the following optical illusions. (“It’s one thing to listen to words about how we infer reality but it’s another matter of fact to experience it.”) Abrash begins with a very Matrix-esque example: blue pill or red pill? He (just barely) blew out a row of 40 candles during a mini-celebration at company headquarters, and Mark Zuckerberg posted a video to, yes, Facebook. “Schrep,” as friends and colleagues call him, could share his huffing and puffing with anyone who wasn’t there. They will be capable of beaming broadband around the world, helping Facebook towards its dream of providing internet access to the two-thirds of the planet still without it. “Depending on how this test flight goes, we’ll see what happens,” Parikh added. “This is a big plane, this is a big project and it’s never been done before.” The project makes use of solar and battery technology that has only just been developed, so it is still very much in the experimental phase and the drones are unlikely to be launched commercially anytime soon. The drones have been developed by Somerset-based company Ascenta, which was purchased by Facebook in March 2014, and are capable of flying at 60,000 feet for months at a time, driven by solar power.

There is also the matter of securing deals with internet carriers, as Facebook has denied it will start its own ISP, saying it would go against the company’s core goals. Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, gave the example of his four-year-old daughter, who over the weekend rode her bike without training wheels for the first time. “I wish everyone could’ve been teleported to that moment,” the proud dad said at the conference, F8. When friends and family view that video over the net, he wants them to step inside Mark Zuckerberg’s conference room as the candles go out, not just watch on a phone. Oculus Rift’s founder and chief executive Palmer Luckey has said in the past that Facebook in its current form wasn’t a good fit for virtual reality. “Looking at a larger than life News Feed or someone’s photos in VR isn’t interesting.

I don’t think it’s going to be Facebook the social network in VR, but people are narcissists and they want people to see what they think are their amazing lives,” he said at International CES in Las Vegas in January. But Facebook is already studying how to enable and safeguard purchases made through Oculus, Chief Security Officer Joe Sullivan said in a separate interview. ”Virtual commerce” is possible in video games like Minecraft and developers for Samsung ‘s Gear VR headset have built “virtual experiences” that gamers can pay for, Schroepfer said. The city and its skyscraper are part of an Oculus virtual reality demo that Facebook is sharing with conference attendees this week at Fort Mason Center on San Francisco Bay.

But he believes the company is already laying the groundwork for such a marriage. “There is a deep well of research and work we’re doing in terms of how to do that,” he says. “We are very interested in making this a social experience….The true magic of this VR technology will come when it’s not a solo activity, but a joint activity.” The long road to that place begins with the “immersive” 360-degree videos Facebook unveiled earlier in the week. Samsung’s Gear VR, which was built in partnership with Oculus Rift, was released to consumers through the electronics chain Best Buy in the US on Friday, becoming the first VR headset to be available beyond developers and early adopters to the mass market.

Real estate developers can use them to give potential buyers “a sense of what is it like looking out of the window of [apartment] 23F,” Schroepfer said. When my colleague Jessi Hempel entered the same virtual world yesterday morning, she stepped off the skyscraper, knowing that she was really standing in a tiny room at the back of an old maritime warehouse. Without offering a firm timeline, the company only went so far as to say that it’ll release a consumer version “soon.” Oculus’s chief scientist, Michael Abrash, said advances made in the field will eventually blur the line between virtual reality and reality. To prove it, Facebook gave attendees a smaller version on paper, where the shape of the left table popped out so it could be placed on top of the right table. But virtual reality won’t actually seem real until the “brain accepts our avatars as people,” he said, which will require modeling realistic eye, face, hand, and body movements.

That’s not exactly virtual reality, but Facebook hopes to provide additional fidelity by giving you the option of streaming these videos to headsets like the Oculus and the Samsung Gear VR, hardware that straps around your eyes and gives the (rather convincing) illusion that you’re in another place. The black and white spinning balls rotate in a counter-clockwise direction, but once you focus your eyes on either the red or yellow circle, it’ll appear as if the black and white balls rotating around the other circle are moving in the opposite direction. This means all the people who missed Schroepfer’s daughter riding her bike could theoretically “teleport” there, soak in the scenery, and experience the joy of the moment. In this instance, the brain is using lighting clues to determine the color of the square underneath the table, which is the same shade of gray as the black ones on the side. (We double checked with the eyedropper tool on Photoshop.) These examples help illustrate Abrash’s thesis: Seeing is believing. “What we just learned is an experience is real to the extent it convinces the perceptual system in your brain,” he said.

This is the gap Mark Zuckerberg must bridge in combining Facebook with virtual reality, now that his company owns the startup that built the Oculus headset. And, behind the scenes, Facebook must fashion a way of automatically formatting these videos for viewing in an Oculus. “How the heck do you get them into your VR? As he points out, a Japanese company called Ricoh is already offering a small consumer camera that can capture 360-degree video, and others will follow. “The quality is not there yet,” he says. “But you can see a short, clear path to where the quality is pretty good.” And the Oculus is on the verge of fruition.

Schroepfer envisions a time when you can use Facebook and Oculus VR to, say, join a friend on a virtual tour of the Louvre—even if one of you is in San Francisco and the other is in New York. “It’s you and I going to Paris to visit a museum without getting on an airplane,” he says, “and being able to interact while doing this.” That requires an even greater leap in technology. “If you have someone else in the world, you want to see some sort of representation of them,” he says. “There’s a lot more data we have to track.” And even if you get this kind of mutual VR right, there’s still the headset problem. As Abrash explained during his keynote, the ultimate aim is to more closely meld the virtual with what’s (really) around you. “In effect, you’ll be able to pull the real world into VR,” he said. “You want to be able to see your coffee cup so you can pick it up without taking off your headset. But he hesitates when asked how much time he’s likely to spend with something like this on his head. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s a good question.” Another attendee, Hulker Heschberger, points out that 3-D movies—the theater variety—have never really succeeded because of the headwear problem. “It’s artificial,” he says. Down the road, we’ll have a completely immersive way of communicating with people across the globe, but maybe something simpler is the better option—or at least the typical option. “Zuckerberg has said that VR is the most social thing,” Blau explains. “But in fact, it’s not.” Today, Facebook is about so easily sharing what you have with others. And when individuals strap on the goggles, they’re separated from those in their online social network (let alone the people standing beside them)—not drawn closer to them.

It will shrink down to something tiny, something that will fit on a pair of ordinary glasses that don’t completely separate us from this world, something like, well, Google Glass.

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