Facebook F8: Oculus Will Make Virtual Reality Mainstream

27 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

At Facebook, a sharpening focus on virtual reality.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer told a crowd gathered in San Francisco’s Fort Mason Center that users will be able to play VR games on “something” shipped by Oculus Rift “this year,” Mashable reports. The social media giant acquired Oculus, one of the pioneers in virtual reality headsets and technology, one year ago with the intention of taking social interaction, entertainment and more into the virtual landscape. (RELATED: Facebook Buys Leading Virtual Reality Developer Oculus Rift) The company declined to specify what that “something” might be, but it won’t be the long-awaited consumer version of the company’s latest “Crescent Bay” prototype, a spokesman later confirmed.

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.

Facebook has already completed its first test flight with the new aircraft in the U.K. “The idea is to loiter across an area at a high altitude, for months at a time, and beam down Internet access,” according to Schroepfer, who promised more information about the aircraft later this year. “Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10 percent of the world’s population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post. 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. If you are talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then ‘real’ is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain,” Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash said, quoting Laurence Fishburne’s character “Morpheus” from the popular sci-fi trilogy “The Matrix” to describe the experience.

A year ago, Facebook acquired the five-person team at U.K.-based Ascenta, which worked on early versions of Zephyr, the longest-flying solar-powered unmanned aircraft. Abrash said the company was making “significant progress” toward convincing the human brain that virtual reality is actual reality, The Verge reports. “Unlike Morpheus, I’m not offering you a choice today,” Abrash said. “No matter which pill you pick, we’re all headed down the rabbit hole together.”

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. 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. 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.

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. Abrash acknowledged that developing VR tech is hard, and requires a long-term commitment, but said Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus will help propel the technology.

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. On Wednesday, during his conference keynote, Zuckerberg revealed that Facebook is now testing a kind of 360-degree video that can put you inside recreations of real places, in much the same way the Oculus demo puts you inside wholly imagined places.

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. The implication is that we’ll eventually spend our days watching not just good old-fashioned internet videos, but completely “immersive” videos streamed through something like the Oculus. 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 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.

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. 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.

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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