Virtual reality is coming to sex, sports and Facebook

29 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

A woman demonstrates the Oculus virtual reality headset at the Facebook F8 Developers Conference Thursday, March 26, 2015, in San Francisco.(Photo: AP Photo/Eric Risberg) Once a concept that lived solely in the domain of science fiction novels (1992’s Snow Crash) and movies (2009’s Avatar), VR now is poised not only to challenge reality’s stranglehold on the way we engage with life, but possibly even eclipse it for sheer thrills.

At its annual developer conference this week, executives discussed how commerce and virtual reality would help extend the social-networking giant’s reach.“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. In interviews, executives said they were already contemplating how to make shopping possible in a virtual world. “You have all the pieces you need to create these amazing experiences where I can buy content, I can buy other things, I can connect with other people in real time,” Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer said in an interview on Thursday. “We have all the pieces of this puzzle and we can put it all together rather than just sell you a headset or sell you a social experience.” Wednesday, CEO Mark Zuckerberg unveiled an initiative that would allow users to buy items through the company’s Messenger app.

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. Virtual reality headsets such as the Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR have launched with a focus on video games and entertainment, but Schroepfer and other Facebook executives attempted to convince attendees that the gadgets could transform how people communicate. 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. Even sex – all of it will be experienced in a hyper-real fashion and with a commonness that technologists predict will rival our incessant smartphone use today. 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. 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.

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. 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.

NextVR crew set up their virtual reality cameras at an NBA game, allowing viewers of the live event to see the game from a variety of positions in the arena. (Photo: NextVR) The popularity of sports also is likely to bring VR to the masses. 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. That’s the bet of NextVR, a Laguna Beach, Calif., company that has begun live-broadcasting hockey, basketball, soccer and NASCAR races in VR via Samsung’s $200 headset. 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. Internet entrepreneur Ted Barnett has been fascinated with building facsimiles of other worlds since he and his brothers built a small town out of cardboard in their basement. Today, he’s teamed up with the historical society in the Bay Area suburb of Mill Valley to build a virtual representation of the village from 100 years ago.

Called TimeWalk, the project’s ultimate aim would to allow a person to walk through the town today while wearing an AR headset that would simultaneously project a Model T rumbling by or the dances of the Native American tribe that once lived in Mill Valley. “It’s fun to think about (J.R.R. 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? Tolkien’s) Middle Earth or Star Trek, but what’s really interesting is this sort of time travel that we can actually figure out thanks to VR,” says Barnett, who envisions a near future where citizens everywhere are coding and scanning their worlds present and past through a platform called Unity. “We can honor the past, and in so doing learn things about ourselves.” At present, the popular social networking site remains, in format, little more than a updatable bulletin board. But with an affordable Oculus Rift product, it could vault into being a VR-powered portal for experiencing the lives of family and friends in a compellingly real way. 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. The implication: Whether those signals are real or artificially created doesn’t matter, if we react to the stimuli, then what we are experiencing is by definition real. 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. Abrash leveled a gaze at the audience and, in a voice that projected unwavering certainty, declared: “You are going to care about virtual reality, sooner or later.” USA Today contributor Jennifer Jolly shows – and tells – what it’s like to get totally immersed in a new Oculus Rift, the next generation prototype virtual reality world.

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