Facebook’s Ambitious Vision for Virtual Reality

Facebook wants to make the world better with virtual reality.

At last year’s Facebook F8 event, Mark Zuckerberg articulated a simple vision for making virtual reality mainstream: social VR, or connecting people in the virtual world. But now Facebook has bigger plans. Delivering the keynote at the Oculus Connect conference October 11, Zuckerberg shared a future in which VR improves every aspect of our lives beyond social (naturally, with the help of equipment created by Oculus, owned by Facebook). He also raised eyebrows by announcing that Facebook wants to get one billion people to adopt VR.

Whether Facebook delivers on this vision depends on three factors: accessible equipment, content, and business adoption.

Mark Zuckerberg Updates a Vision

Oculus Connect is an annual gathering of developers and content creators, and because of Oculus’s influence on VR, the event is a bellwether watched closely by the technology industry – making it an ideal venue for Mark Zuckerberg. He used his keynote as an opportunity to redefine VR as a way to improve all aspects of our everyday lives, beyond connecting people socially.

“We believe that one day almost everyone is going to use virtual reality to improve how we work, how we play, and how we connect with each other,” he said. “[Virtual reality] is not about escaping reality. It’s about making it better. It’s about curing diseases, connecting families, spreading empathy, rethinking work, improving games, and, yes, bringing us all closer together.”

He also said, “We want to get a billion people on virtual reality. We have to make sure virtual reality is accessible to everyone.”

He didn’t give a timeline for achieving that goal, but to put things in perspective, in the United States, there are probably only 9.6 million people who use a virtual reality at least once a month according to eMarketer.

We can quibble about the one billion number and even scoff at it. But Zuckerberg has the right idea. As he pointed out, people are already using Oculus technology in many ways beyond gaming and entertainment, such as:

  • The workplace: The use of Oculus to help Facebook employees collaborate among multiple locations, thus transcending the limitations of the workplace and overcoming the hassles of having to travel and commute.

In fact, many business are using Oculus and competing products (of which there are many) to improve patient care, train employees, and create news content, among many other uses. One reason: businesses are in a better position to absorb the cost of VR equipment.

By redefining a vision for VR, Zuckerberg has aligned Facebook’s world with Google’s, which sees virtual reality as an all-purpose utility for educating, searching, and living better. But whereas Google tends to sound workmanlike, Facebook sells global change.

“Whenever people say that we’re building virtual reality because we’re not satisfied with the one we live in, my answer is, ‘Of course we are,’” Zuckerberg said. “And that’s a good thing. We believe that the future can be a lot better.” He added, “Optimism is good,” sounding more like a benevolent Gordon Gekko.

Now let’s look at the three critical success factors that will make or break the vision: accessible products, content, and business uptake.

Accessible Products

Regardless of how compelling Facebook’s vision is, if people don’t use virtual reality equipment, VR will remain the bastion of a small number of affluent media/entertainment enthusiasts.

And VR equipment has been a serious impediment to VR’s uptake. Using quality gear that delivers on the truly immersive promise of VR requires buying a bulky, expensive headset tethered to a PC. But at Oculus Connect, Zuckerberg announced an antidote: Oculus Go.

Oculus Go is a more lightweight, breathable headset that delivers virtual reality for $199 – which is twice the price of Google’s equivalent Daydream View, but far less expensive than the $1,500-$2,000 you’ll need to spend (minimum) for a higher-end Oculus Rift headset, controller, sensors, host PC, and other equipment. When Oculus Go is available in 2018, it will deliver two major advantages:

  • Lower cost.
  • Mobility in that the product is not tethered to a PC.

But Oculus Go is not going to deliver truly immersive VR. The headset will be limited to watching content such as movies in VR. To really experience VR for mind-blowing stuff, you’ll need to shell out a lot more money for an appropriately equipped PC and hundreds of dollars for the right headset and sensors.

That said, Oculus Go should help more everyday people begin to experience VR at a more affordable, entry level. It’s no panacea, but the product moves virtual reality one step closer to more widespread accessibility. The real breakthrough may happen in 2018 when Oculus unveils Santa Cruz, which is purported to be a higher-end mobile VR headset. For more detail, check out this brief comparison of Oculus Go to Santa Cruz from Oculus.

VR will need lightweight, mobile eyewear to achieve mainstream adoption. But to put things in perspective, VR is at the tail-end of a 10-year development plan for Facebook. And Zuckerberg realizes Oculus headgear as we know it today will not achieve an adoption breakthrough. When he unveiled Facebook’s 10-year plan at F8 in 2016, he said Facebook’s long-term vision is to develop smart, elegant eyeglasses that deliver both VR and augmented reality. And Facebook isn’t the only company developing more accessible gear. For now, “VR everywhere” likely means “lower-end VR everywhere.”

Stay tuned. The competitive pressure alone may accelerate that growth plan dramatically. But something else needs to happen, too: the creation of content that will make people want to pay for VR equipment.

Content

Content represents virtual reality’s greatest promise and shortcoming. In fact, inadequate content offerings are the biggest challenge facing the virtual (and augmented) reality industry, according to a survey of executives, consultants, and technologists by Perkins Coie and Upload.

Virtual reality does more than present content in an exciting way. VR re-imagines content — movies, learning tutorials, music, games, and just about anything we consume in the 2D world. With VR, you don’t consume content. You are part of it.

And yet, we are nowhere near having an available inventory of content to sustain VR especially given VR’s cost of entry (even at a basic level). I think journalist Paul Tassi nails it when he discusses the experience of trying an Oculus Rift headset and then eventually ditching the product. He cites a host of problems: “It’s a combination of problems. It’s the set-up, it’s physical and mental exertion of playing and processing games in VR. It’s the fact that there are still very, very few VR titles I actually find worthwhile compared to console and PC games.”

If Paul Tassi – who is a VR enthusiast – ditches his Oculus Rift headset after running out of compelling content, then the VR industry has a problem on its hands.

As René Pinnell, head of Kaleidoscope VR, told The Wall Street Journal’s Christopher Mims in 2016: “The dirty little secret about VR is that the hardware has run ahead of the content.” (Mims’s article noted that “The depth and breadth of content is coming up short, appearing more like a demo than a full-fledged product.”) This kind of concern continues a year after Mims’s article was published. Just a few days ago, Daniel Howley, technology writer for Yahoo! Finance, noted lack of content as the biggest problem holding back VR.

Facebook knows content must be great. At Oculus Connect, Oculus’s head of content, Jason Levin, trotted out several examples of how Oculus is improving the state of the art with content, including:

  • The vaunted Lone Echo role-playing game, which has earned an 89 score on Metacritic.

  • The Emmy-winning The People’s House from Oculus Studios, which consists of a White House tour in 360 video hosted by Barack and Michelle Obama.
  • The Blade Runner 2049: Memory Lab experience, which inserts participants into the visually stunning world of the titular movie.

He has reason to be proud, as do Google and Enosis VR for partnering with Queen last year to re-introduce “Bohemian Rhapsody” in VR. As do the makers of Clouds over Sidra, a VR movie (made with Samsung VR equipment) that drops the viewer into the harsh life of a Syrian refugee.

The examples Jason Levin shared, and the ones I’m calling out here, come from media/entertainment. VR content can be much bigger than gaming and entertainment. As I noted, VR already touches healthcare, retail, automotive, and many other industries. Mark Zuckerberg realizes that VR needs to extend beyond gaming and entertainment to take hold, which is why he pushed social VR in 2016 — and why Oculus has launched Oculus for Business.

Business Applications

The most intriguing development from Oculus Connect was the announcement about the launch of Oculus for Business, a bundled set of Oculus products designed to help businesses build virtual reality applications. Facebook hopes that by offering hardware, accessories, dedicated service, and expanded warranty/licensing terms, companies will adopt Oculus for Business to create applications to do everything from sell products more effectively to train employees.

Good thinking. Oculus for Business will make it easier for businesses to develop content inside their four walls, with Oculus and competing products. For instance:

  • Walmart is using virtual reality (including Oculus headsets) to train employees to do everything from prepare for surging crowds on Black Friday to maintaining clean aisles. And the company is seriously researching incorporating VR into shopping.
  • The University of Washington Harborview Burn Center is among the medical facilities using VR to treat pain by retraining the brain to focus on a pleasant experience during train therapy.
  • Oculus for Business launch partner Audi is using Oculus to help sell cars by helping customers configure their purchase before they buy it.

  • Rolls-Royce uses VR to train workers to assemble gearbox parts for its newest jet engine, reducing the risk and costs for this complicated procedure.

Potentially these businesses are Trojan Horses for VR, incorporating it for a captive audience. The business absorbs the cost of the equipment, and the employees learn new skills. A company such as Walmart, which employs 1.6 million, can have tremendous impact making people more comfortable with VR’s use.

Facebook wants a piece of that potential market and has plenty of competition. Rolls-Royce, for instance, uses a Vive headset from HTC for its VR gearbox assembly. My money is on Facebook to do for VR in business what IBM Watson is doing for artificial intelligence: become the go-to resource and evangelist. Watch the business applications closely – the compelling news will come from corporate applications. Check out more examples here, here, and here.

Whatever Happened to Social VR?

Meanwhile, social VR is alive and well. Earlier this year, Facebook operationalized the concept with the launch of Facebook Spaces, a VR environment in which Oculus Rift users can create their own avatars and meet in virtual spaces, where they can take selfies together in front of different places around the world and do other things such as share messages in VR.

At Oculus Connect, Rachel Franklin, head of social VR at Facebook, discussed how Facebook Spaces is adding new features such as:

  • Live 360 video to create real-time video content, such as being on the red carpet with someone else at the Oscars.
  • Quill, a VR painting tool that will make it possible for Spaces users to create art together in virtual reality.
  • 3D posts, or objects created in VR and posted to appear as 3D objects on a Facebook Feed.

The addition of Quill is especially inspired because of the possibilities for co-creating artistic content in VR rather than hanging out passively. Just imagine the increase in levels of engagement as people get down to the business of creating together rather than hanging out for a few minutes to take a selfie.

And yet, the examples of social VR demonstrated at Oculus Connect also showed how much work there is to do. The avatars looked cheesy, and the virtual spaces looked too cartoonish to be compelling, as the example of two avatars ice fishing demonstrated.

Zuckerberg himself gave social media a black eye earlier in October when he and Rachel Franklin used Facebook Spaces to visit hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. The virtual visit, livestreamed on Facebook, was part of a discussion about Facebook’s efforts to assist Puerto Rico in its recovery. But the livestream backfired when the use of cartoonish avatars made Zuckerberg and Franklin look tone deaf in the face of human suffering.

Later Zuckerberg apologized for the gaffe. He said, “When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.”

The example is worth noting here because first, he tried to use VR for something more ambitious and, second, he showed how difficult it can be to implement a vision. And here is why I note how childish the avatars look. When you make people look like cartoons, a cartoonish experience results. And I doubt reducing people to cartoons is what Zuckerberg has in mind when he speaks in terms of virtual reality changing the world.

The big picture is that Facebook is operationalizing social VR, with much yet to do.

What Comes Next

The corporate world is an important proving ground for Facebook and for VR. The applications of VR in healthcare to manage pain treatment alone is potentially a huge step forward in bettering society and improving lives. Perhaps we won’t see a billion people adopt VR. Perhaps VR will never take hold the way Zuckerberg hopes it will. But we’re only a year into the 10-year plan.

Even if VR does not achieve uptake into our everyday lives, it is taking hold in the workplace – not just with Facebook’s help, but through the adoption of VR from its competitors. But credit Mark Zuckerberg for articulating a compelling vision and a follow-through with efforts such as Oculus for Business.

Note: I watched the Oculus Connect keynotes via livestream. You can, too, by visiting the Oculus Connect website.

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