How Facebook Wants to Get You Hooked on Virtual Reality

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Facebook bought virtual reality headset maker Oculus for $2 billion last March, but its plans for the technology have so far been just a subject of speculation.  Re/code’s Lauren Goode recently reported that Facebook chief product officer Chris Cox, speaking onstage at the Code/Media conference in California, extolled the virtual reality experience and revealed a little bit about Facebook’s virtual reality ambitions. He told Re/code editor Peter Kafka, “I mean, virtual reality is pretty cool. We’re working on apps for VR.”

He went on to ask, by way of example, “Have you used some of the film demos inside of VR?” He explained a virtual reality experience in which the headset wearer finds himself inside a Blue Angel fighter jet, and another that sets the viewer inside a yurt in Mongolia. “You realize, when you’re in it, that you’re looking at the future, and it’s going to be awesome. When you’re in Facebook, you’re just sending around these bits of experience — a photo, a video, a thought,” Cox said. But with virtual reality, you could be “sending a fuller picture.”

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg noted in a post announcing his company’s acquisition of Oculus that virtual reality represents “a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures.” He went on to add, “These are just some of the potential uses. By working with developers and partners across the industry, together we can build many more. One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”

When Kafka asked Cox at the Code/Media conference if people will be able to make virtual reality content, Cox answered, “Totally. You’ll do it, Beyoncé will do it.” He didn’t offer details on how Facebook users — who are currently uploading and engaging with videos at a “record pace” — will be able to create this virtual reality content. And Goode points out that creating such content still requires multiple cameras and serious production skill. Cox did say, though, that he doesn’t think that users will be able to create their own virtual reality content “for a while. We’re probably a long way from everyone having these headsets.”

GigaOm’s Signe Brewster notes that Cox is likely referring mainly to the creation of photos and videos. While virtual reality won’t make everyone a game developer — which will remain a highly specialized skill — it will change the technology with which we capture photos and videos of our friends and our surroundings. Brewster characterizes the shift to virtual reality as a jump akin to the transition from desktop to mobile. Virtual reality will represent a new medium, one that offers a different scale and different ways for users to comfortably interact with it.

Brewster notes that it’s already possible to browse Facebook and other websites in virtual reality, but the experience so far mimics an enormous screen that offers basically the same experience as browsing the Internet on desktop. The few websites that have been reimagined as virtual reality apps don’t seem to have invented anything that different when it comes to the interface for users to interact with content. While Facebook could take the same approach, reimagining its many apps to create something new, but not radically new, for virtual reality, the social networking giant could go further. As Brewster points out, Facebook reinvent our social interactions for the new medium.

A new breed of camera will soon enable more people to create 3D content, and GigaOm notes that the creation of 360-degree 3D content has traditionally required the use of specialized equipment that’s essentially comprised of an array of cameras rigged together. But 360-degree cameras in the sub-$1,000 price range have attracted hundreds of thousands of dollars in crowdfunding over the past two years, with some close to the point of being able to ship to their first backers. Brewster envisions them creating a similar user niche to the one enjoyed by GoPro and other similar action cameras.

Virtual reality cameras could be integrated into mobile devices, and more options, like shooting 180-degree content instead of 360 degree, could become popular. The LucidCam, for example, shoots 3D video in 180 degrees, and can be held out in front of the user like any other “normal” camera. Shooting with a 360-degree camera is much more difficult, as the user’s face will block a good portion of the view unless the camera is mounted to a tripod or raised above the head on a selfie stick.

Facebook’s apps for virtual reality platforms are likely to be available across many of the mobile-based headsets that will be available to consumers within the next few years. And Brewster points out that virtual reality content is likely to show up even in users’ regular Facebook feeds. YouTube already has plans to support 360-degree content, which will likely enable users to pan around within the browser, much like they already do in Google’s Street View. Facebook could consider a similar system, which would enable any user on any platform to view the virtual reality content posted to the social network. Brewster notes that Samsung’s Gear VR headset is already on shelves — with Oculus Rift expected to be released later this year — and while most people likely won’t create virtual reality content for a few years, they’ll be consuming it much sooner if things turn out the way Facebook envisions.

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