SAN FRANCISCO – For years, the idea that virtual reality would go mainstream has remained exactly the same: virtual.
Although tech giants like Facebook and Sony have spent billions of dollars trying to perfect the experience, virtual reality is still a niche game for hobbyists willing to pay thousands of dollars. , usually for a tiny VR headset attached to a powerful gaming computer.
That changed last year during the pandemic. As people live more in digital life, they start buying more VR headsets. Sales of VR hardware skyrocketed, led by Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, a headset introduced last fall, according to research firm IDC.
To stay on track, Facebook on Thursday introduced a virtual reality service called Horizon Workroom. The product, free for Quest 2 owners to download, provides a virtual meeting room where headset users can gather as if they were in a face-to-face meeting. Participants join with a customizable animated avatar of themselves. Interactive virtual whiteboards line the walls so everyone can write and draw things like in a physical conference room.
The product is another step towards what Facebook sees as the ultimate form of social connection for its 3.5 billion users. “One way or another, I think we’re going to live in a mixed reality future,” Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said at a media roundtable this week conducted. in virtual reality using the Workroom.
At this event, Zuckerberg’s profile picture and about a dozen Facebook employees, reporters and technical support staff gathered in an open and well-lit virtual meeting room. Mr. Zuckerberg’s avatar features a long-sleeved Henley shirt in dark blue Facebook color. (My avatar has a red plaid shirt.) Since the Workroom only shows participants who are floating around a wooden table, no one has to worry about choosing. a pair of pants.
Facebook was early to virtual reality. In 2014, it paid $2 billion to buy VR headset startup Oculus VR. At the time, Zuckerberg promised that the technology would “let you experience the impossible.”
The deal has started a wave of acquisitions and financing in virtual reality. Investments in VR startups surged, while companies like HTC and Sony also promised mass VR headsets. Microsoft developed the HoloLens, which is a holographic image projector.
But the hype is quick. The first generation of most VR hardware – including Facebook’s Oculus Rift – was very expensive. Almost all headsets require the user to connect to a personal computer. There is no obvious “killer app” to draw people to the device. Worse still, some people feel nauseous after using the product.
The next generation of VR headsets is focused on keeping costs down. Samsung Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and Google Daydream all require consumers to wear goggles and drop them on their smartphones to use as VR displays. Those efforts also failed because smartphones weren’t powerful enough to deliver immersive virtual reality experiences.
“People will always ask me, ‘Which VR headset should I buy?’ said Nick Fajt, CEO of Rec Room, a popular video game among virtual reality enthusiasts. “And I would always answer, ‘just wait.'”
To adjust, some companies started advertising virtual reality not to the masses but to narrower niches. Magic Leap, a startup that has touted itself as the next big thing in augmented reality computing, has moved into selling VR gear to businesses. Microsoft has also gone in a similar direction, focusing specifically on military contracts, although it has said it is “absolutely” still working towards a mainstream consumer product.
In 2017, even Mr. Zuckerberg admitted during an earnings call that Facebook’s bet on Oculus had “taken a little longer” than he initially thought.
Facebook spent the next few years in research and development to eliminate the need for a tethered cable connecting the VR headset to a PC, freeing up the user’s range of motion while keeping the device powerful enough to carry. feel immersed in the virtual.
It also works on “inside-out tracking,” a way to track a VR headset’s position relative to its environment, writing new algorithms that are more power-efficient and don’t drain the device’s battery. too fast.
Atman Binstock, chief architect of Oculus, says there are also improvements in simultaneous mapping and localization, or “SLAM tracking,” that allow VR devices to understand space yet is mapped around itself while also recognizing its own position in that space. Advances in SLAM tracking have helped developers build more interactive digital worlds.
The changes helped lead to last year’s $299 Quest 2, which requires no PC or other clunky hardware to use and is relatively simple to set up.
Facebook doesn’t give sales figures for the Oculus, but revenue from the headset more than doubled in the first three months since Quest 2 became available. Facebook has sold about five million to six million sets of headsets, analysts estimates.
That’s roughly the amount that Sony’s PlayStation VR, widely considered the most successful VR device on the market, has sold since 2016, when it first launched in 2020 (Sony announced a VR system). will work with PlayStation 5, its flagship console.)
Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Facebook Reality Labs, which oversees Oculus’ product division, said Facebook has also paid out tens of millions of dollars to developers to help create games and other apps for VR. “Even if all of VR in 2016 is tough, developers still need us to remove some of the risks,” he said in an interview.
Oculus has also purchased several gaming studios and other VR-based companies, such as BigBox VR, Beat Games, and Sanzaru Games, to build more virtual reality content.
With the Office, Facebook wants to make Oculus more than just gaming. The service is intended to provide a sense of presence to others, even if they may be sitting halfway around the world.
Zuckerberg sees the project as part of the next internet, something technologists call a “super-method”. In the words of Zuckerberg, the metaverse is a world where people can communicate through VR or video calling, smartphones or tablets, or through other devices such as smart glasses or undeveloped devices. bright.
There, people will maintain some sense of continuity between all the different digital worlds they live in. For example, someone could buy a digital avatar of a shirt in a virtual reality store, then log out but continue wearing that shirt to a Zoom meeting.
For now, that vision is still far away. VR adoption can be measured in tens of millions of users, compared to billions of smartphone owners. Facebook also ran into trouble when it issued a recall for Quest 2’s foam cushion covers this year after reports of skin irritation from some users. The company has made a new, free silicone cushion cover available to all Quest 2 owners.
At this week’s Room with reporters event, Zuckerberg spoke but had to leave at one point and return to the room because his digital avatar’s mouth didn’t move when he spoke.
“The technology that gives you this sense of presence is like the holy grail of social experience, and I think a company like ours is designed to do over time,” Zuckerberg said, after the problem is fixed and his profile picture mouth is moving as before. “My hope is that in the years to come, people really start to think of us not primarily as a social media company, but as a ‘metaverse’ company that gives a real sense of presence. .”