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Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t do moods, any more than he does changes of clothing. But on Wednesday at Oculus Connect, the virtual reality firm’s annual developer conference, the Facebook CEO struck a note that in anyone else you’d call defiant. “I am more committed than ever to VR,” he told the audience, adding, self-referentially, “The future is built by the people who believe it can be better.” Then he pledged to get a billion people into virtual reality.
“No pressure,” laughed Stephen Levy, talking later on stage to chief Oculus scientist Michael Abrash. “He didn’t say when,” Abrash, who apparently had only just heard the promise, replied tersely.
After an unhappy year for Oculus, which included the loss of original content division Oculus Story Studio, CEO Brendan Iribe and founder Palmer Luckey (the latter following revelations that he secretly funded a pro-Trump campaign group dedicated to abusing Clinton supporters online), Zuckerberg was there to rouse the faithful in the march on the promised land. This he did with a mix of messianic proclamations – “We’re compelled by human connection… this is an invitation to the inevitable” – and a torrent of announcements designed to show the vitality of VR.
Yet if the black-and-Kryptonite colour scheme and teeth-rattling soundtrack led anyone to expect the supervillain-style launch of VR’s long-awaited “killer app”, then they would have been sorely disappointed. At Oculus Connect, the future was being built one brick at a time.
The most notable new addition was Oculus Go, a new cord-free headset that works on its own without a PC or a mobile. The device won’t change much for VR enthusiasts – it doesn’t have positional tracking, so it won’t allow you to do more than move your head – but it should help bring the technology to new audiences. When it’s released early next year priced at $199, Oculus Go will become by some way the cheapest headset on the market, given that the current alternatives need to be used with either a high-end smartphone (cost: £350) or a high-end PC (cost: £1,000).
In a pair of Ikea-inspired show rooms in the bowels of the San Jose Conference Centre, Oculus showed off something much more advanced: the Project Santa Cruz headset, which contains four outward-facing sensors embedded in its edge. By mapping the space around it, this headset could make it possible to go into VR anywhere, instead of specially-prepared rooms with sensors in the corners. The short demos were fun, flexible and easy to use: if it could be relied on to work this well anywhere, VR would be mainstream tomorrow.
But although Santa Cruz should go to developers in 2018, the technical difficulty involved means its general release is a distant prospect. Here and elsewhere, tweaks and updates were the order of the day. Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, announced that Spaces, the company’s social VR app, would come with two new features: cards and – wait for it – dice.
Given this slow progress, the parade of Oculus executives that followed Zuckerberg to the stage sounded occasionally defensive. “We’ve become impatient as a society,” complained head of content Jason Rubin, conveniently ignoring the role that statements such as “we want to get a billion people in virtual reality” play in creating that impatience. Speaking to me later, Rubin insisted that Oculus was “winning” and “way ahead.” But, if anything, this posed more questions than it answered. Winning at what? Way ahead in the race to where? (“The future” doesn’t count.)
Oculus Connect did not answer this question explicitly, but from the announcements it was possible to discern a pattern. Take, for instance, one of the most interesting updates: Dash, a new operating system that runs inside VR apps, making it possible to flick between them or work in two at the same time. Dash can also pull desktop programmes into VR, meaning that a developer could, in principle, debug their software inside the app they’re working on (assuming there’s a good enough virtual keyboard, which may be doubtful).
This might not sound like much, but, in a way, that’s the point. Up until now, a lot of the effort in VR has been aimed at making experiences that transport people to alternate worlds. Dash goes the other way, by bringing VR closer to existing digital life. The idea doesn’t seem to be that you would spend all your time in VR. Instead, like Oculus Go, Dash smooths out the difficulties involved in doing even simple tasks, helping people take the first step towards virtual activity.
Dash also brings Oculus’s disparate VR experiences closer together, a feature it shared with several other new announcements. Oculus product manager Christina Womack showed off avatars and safety features (blocking, flagging and so on) that move from one app to another. This will help create some coherence on the often wildly-different VR experiences – but the eventual goal must be to make this the beginning of continuous identities in VR; linking, naturally, back to Spaces, which connects virtual persona directly to Facebook accounts, all the way down to recognisable avatars generated from your Facebook photos. No wonder Zuckerberg remains committed to the technology, when the eventual goal is control of the virtual self.
But while many in VR continue to dream of the Metaverse, these announcements seem geared for a future in which people pop into VR for tasks or meetings, then leave to go back to “real life”. So what is the platform of the future? The answer may be found in the low-key release at Oculus Connect of a product called Facebook 3D Posts.
Starting today, Facebook will accept interactive three-dimensional media files. Sculpt a dancing hot dog in VR and you can not only post it as a standalone item in the News Feed, but also place it into other real-life scenes.
At Oculus Connect this was presented as a useful tool for Spaces: a way to share virtual objects from one Space to another. And perhaps, one day, it will be. Right now, however, it looked like something else entirely: not VR, but it’s cousin, augmented reality.
AR and VR are not inherently rival technologies. The development of one will help the other. (The spatial mapping needed for Project Santa Cruz, for instance, is one of the core components of workable AR headsets.) But there is a tension between them all the same. When AR succeeds, it takes energy and resources away from VR. The best developers work on it; the company tilts in its direction.
Exact details on how this will work will be released over the coming days. But at this point in time it appears as if Facebook has followed Snap, Apple and Google and enabled mobile AR across its entire platform. Not everyone will engage with it, naturally. But if Zuckerberg is looking for a billion users, this is probably the place to start.