The Virtual Reality Questions That Facebook’s F8 Conference Left Unanswered

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 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 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.

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 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.

It’s much easier for mobile and internet service providers to recoup the costs of infrastructure instalment in urban environments, but harder to justify in sparsely populated areas. “So we’re investing in radical new approaches. You have to have satellites, drones and other things that don’t require the massive investments of traditional infrastructure,” explains Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer. 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. 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.

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 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. 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. 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. 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.

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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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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