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Facebook Shows Us What It Means to Be 'Social' in Virtual Reality (Video)

Gatherings of avatars.


One of the key knocks on virtual reality, the gamer-heavy industry Facebook is betting big on, is that wearing a headset intended to block out the real world in favor of a virtual one isn’t a very social activity. Facebook, an inherently social company, thinks it can change that.

At its F8 developer conference on Wednesday Facebook demoed what it calls “social VR,” which is exactly what it sounds like: Connecting two or more real people in a virtual world.

Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer stood on stage in front of a live audience in San Francisco, put on one of Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headsets and “teleported” to London. There, he met up with another Facebook employee, who was actually wearing his own headset at the company’s Menlo Park, Calif., headquarters.

The two didn’t actually meet IRL, of course, but they were able to chat and experience London together as digital avatars. They even took a selfie (which greatly amused the audience) and then shared it directly to a Facebook page.

This, says Facebook product manager Mike Beltzner, is how Facebook is thinking about social VR. At least right now.

Facebook has two teams building social VR tools, and it has created VR scenes with as many as five real people interacting together at once. It hasn’t released these features publicly, but it’s showing them off to better convey how it sees virtual reality evolving. The idea is that eventually, you’ll be able to play cards with your friends from college, visit your parents in another state or enjoy a concert with your siblings, all while sitting snugly on your couch.

“Proximity would no longer determine who you spend your time with,” explained Yaser Sheikh, head of Oculus research, who presented on stage Wednesday.

One of the key challenges at the moment is making the avatars feel as real as possible. Right now, they look like cartoons or Sims characters. But Facebook is thinking of other ways to make these avatars more personal. Beltzner mentioned using a mobile phone to scan a user’s face and head as one possible idea.

“You want to be able to scan yourself pretty quickly and have your own self in there,” he explained.

The interest here is driven by the fact that virtual reality is still a very niche market. It’s incredibly expensive, and many headsets require heavy-duty computers to operate. The fact that it’s such a solo activity won’t help bring it mainstream, either. If Facebook wants to sell lots of VR headsets and, more importantly, get the world using its VR software, it needs to create interest for VR technology beyond the solo gamer.

The ability to meet others “face-to-face” from thousands of miles apart might help.

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