How Facebook’s Chief Geek Will Meld Reality With the Oculus

29 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

When Facebook acquired the startup Oculus VR last year for $2 billion, many observers scratched their heads, unsure how the cutting-edge virtual reality technology would fit into the social network’s vision. 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.“As part of our Internet.org effort to connect the world, we’ve designed unmanned aircraft that can beam internet access down to people from the sky,” said Zuckerberg in a blog post. “We’ve successfully completed our first test flight of these aircraft in the UK.” Developed by Ascenta, a Somerset-based designer of solar-powered drones bought by Facebook in March 2014, the drones will be able to fly at altitudes of 60,000 feet for months at a time on solar power. 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 have wingspans greater than 29m, or that of a Boeing 737, but weigh less than a car. “Aircraft like these will help connect the whole world because they can affordably serve the 10% of the world’s population that live in remote communities without existing internet infrastructure,” said Zuckerberg. 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. Samsung’s Oculus-powered Gear VR headset is now on sale for $200, and Oculus Rift is expected to finally hit store shelves this year for somewhere in the $200-$400 range. The drone — dubbed Aquila — is one aspect of Facebook’s Internet.org plan to extend web access to what it estimates are 1.1-billion to 2.8-billion people without it today.

Google is also planning to provide internet access to non-connected areas using both high altitude balloons and drones, buying American drone firm Titan Aerospace in April last year. Facebook and rival Google are experimenting with multiple technologies to reach people unlikely to be served by traditional land lines or cellular networks. Like Zuckerberg the day before, he teased the idea of combining Facebook with the sort of virtual reality offered by Oculus, the startup Zuckerberg and company acquired last year. 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.

Oculus Chief Scientist Michael Abrash took the stage at Facebook’s F8 Developers Conference on Thursday and barely mentioned the company’s game-changing product. But in a high-stakes competition for domination of the Internet, in which Google wields high-altitude balloons and high-speed fiber networks and Amazon has experimental delivery drones and colossal data centers, Facebook is under pressure to show that it, too, can pursue projects that are more speculative than product. “The Amazons, Googles and Facebooks are exploring completely new things that will change the way we live,” said Ed Lazowska, who holds the Bill and Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. “There are other companies out there like Hewlett-Packard and IBM, but they aren’t doing the really huge things anymore.” At a conference in San Francisco on Wednesday, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, explained how Facebook was opening the code to Messenger, its mobile messaging app, so other companies can build right on top of what it’s already doing. 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.

That is Step 1 in a series — including drones, goggles that plug into virtual reality, and artificial intelligence — Facebook plans to work on in the coming years to broaden its influence. He used a series of optical illusions to demonstrate how the brain often fools the eye by using contextual information, such as lighting or lines, to fill in the gaps in an image (see: the dress).

That phenomenon is a perfect example of how our vision fails us on a daily basis—and VR headset makers like Oculus will use that failure to convince our brains that the worlds they create are real. By opening the platform, he said, Facebook wants to tap the creativity of other app makers. “We’re really excited about what you all are able to do with these fast and simple tools we are rolling out,” he said. 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. Facebook said it would soon begin testing a system to allow businesses to use Messenger to offer personalized service to customers after a purchase is made.

At that point, it’s not too far a leap to say that as the technology improves, Facebook could one day resemble a more lifelike version of the game Second Life, where users interact with ultra-realistic, virtual representations of their friends. 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. 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. The McGurk effect describes how what you see affects what you hear, like lips mouthing one word with a voice track saying another. “Reality is what our brain reconstructs it to be,” Abrash said. “Our experience of the world is an illusion, one that evolution has honed to be highly functional.” Once you realize just how easily the eye is tricked, virtual reality’s potential to become the next generation of computing becomes a much more convincing proposition. Test flights are to begin this summer, though full commercial deployment may take years. “We want to serve every person in the world” with high-speed Internet signals, said Yael Maguire, head of Facebook’s Connectivity Lab.

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? Others are not so sure. “Like Google, Facebook gets a pass, because they’ve defied critics and are run by visionary leaders looking out five or 10 years,” said Scott Kessler, an analyst with S.&P. Capital IQ. “Still, people would like to know what this costs, and if it makes money.” Facebook is also courting partners with the manner in which it builds new kinds of computers at its data centers. The idea is that if it is open about what it does and even allows other people to use that information and experiment with their own prototypes, then more companies will adopt that technology and align themselves with Facebook. 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.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that Facebook is testing its own virtual efforts sans Oculus with spherical videos in News Feed, which is a way for people to experience places they’ve never been without leaving Facebook. We will service the core needs better than anyone else, for free.” Facebook’s effort in artificial intelligence is called deep learning, for the number of levels at which it critically analyzes information. Facebook says it likes working with competitors on that technology because, in the end, they can help improve it. “There is nothing that any single company is going to solve by itself,” said Yann LeCun, Facebook’s A.I. research director and a New York University professor. Zuckerberg hopes Facebook’s A.I. will translate languages on the fly, know strangers you might meet and, of course, bring you the highest-value ads. “The fundamental thing about advertising is people paying to get a message in front of you,” Mr. Not even Facebook has those answers, but with Oculus working furiously to turn its Crescent Bay prototype into a real consumer product, and with developers on board building great virtual apps, we’re closer than ever before to a truly immersive virtual experience.

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