The weird thing about Oculus is how mostly nonsocial it is today. Facebook, the world’s largest social network with over 2 billion active monthly users, still hasn’t cracked making Oculus social. Apps like Rooms, Spaces and Venues have tried to bring people together to share experiences in real time in VR, but Facebook’s support of these apps has been fragmented by platform.

Mark Zuckerberg.

Still trying to crack the social world

A new social VR platform, Facebook Horizon, launching in beta next year, looks to be a second (or third or fourth?) take on Facebook’s social virtual universe. The company says it will be key for turning VR into a “critical mass” device. The number of people in the US using VR is expected to rise to 57.1 million in 2021 from about 43 million users today, according to eMarketer. When it comes to AR, eMarketer expects 85 million people in the US will use augmented reality tech at least once a month by 2021 – up from 68.7 million in 2019.

Horizon will be a creative tool, according to Zuckerberg, allowing meetups as well as game- and experience-making. Zuckerberg hints at Oculus Quest users being able to play laser tag or ping-pong, or build other games on the fly. Horizon sounds a bit like Facebook’s larger-scale version of existing social apps such as Altspace, Rec Room and VRChat. Whether it’s any more successful at getting people to connect remains to be seen, but it could be a space where Facebook’s recent work on building more advanced virtual avatars gets tested.

Oculus.

The Quest is also the new Rift

Facebook also announced Oculus Link, an update arriving in November that can tether the standalone Quest headset to a PC, playing Rift content off your computer via a single USB-C cable. Though I wasn’t given a demo of Oculus Link, it sounds like the best of both mobile and PC worlds, since the $399 Quest costs the same as the less versatile PC-connected Oculus Rift S headset.

Zuckerberg explains that while Oculus Link works with nearly any USB-C cable (USB-C 3.1 cables and newer), Oculus will sell a longer, higher-bandwidth cable that will charge the Quest at the same time.

What Facebook isn’t ready to do is open up software development on the Quest, which has a library of apps that have been more heavily curated than the more open-to-developers Rift. Zuckerberg suggests that part of that involves the challenges of getting software to run well (he mentions “thermal envelopes”), and defers to Oculus Link as the way to get VR content that may not make it to the Quest.

Get smaller, get cheaper and make more of them.

Get smaller, get cheaper (and make more of them)

Zuckerberg still won’t share specific lifetime Oculus VR sales numbers, but says that “people have spent more than $100 million in VR content,” on the Oculus store – 20% of which has come from the 5-month-old Oculus Quest. The Quest, he says, is “selling as fast as we are making them.”

“There are operational constraints on how quickly this can grow at this point that we need to make sure we work through,” he adds.

VR still isn’t drawing enough of a crowd to make high-budget AAA games and apps sustainable without Oculus support, though. Zuckerberg still sees a drive for critical mass to be important. Getting more people to want to buy a VR headset needs to happen, too.

“I don’t think the general public is sitting there waiting for the next Oculus device, the way they’re waiting for the next iPhone,” says Victoria Petrock, a principal analyst at eMarketer who focuses on emerging technology.

Mark Zuckerberg, April 10, 2018 in Washington, DC.

Privacy questions

While Zuckerberg is focused on when VR and AR will mature, many Facebook watchers, including the developers he needs to convince to create VR and AR experiences for consumers and businesses, are wondering if. Given all the privacy problems Zuckerberg and Facebook have been caught up in over the past two years – starting with the Cambridge Analytica scandal that saw misuse of over 70 million US Facebook users’ data for election marketing purposes – the biggest concern remains how Facebook will handle data privacy and user content (imagine fake news in VR) when the metaverse goes social.

Zuckerberg has no answers there: “Those concerns will continue to exist and I think there will be new concerns,” he says without elaborating. “There’s still a lot of questions. I don’t think these are things that ever get fully answered – the threats evolve and you need to work on them. But I would hope that by the time these ecosystems are mature, our approaches to those issues will also be quite mature.”

Every science fiction vision of the VR/AR future I’ve loved has imagined plenty of dystopian ways that increased data tracking on headsets, combined with their increased power to create emotional and possibly unreal narratives, could accelerate our biggest fears on the internet. After listening to Zuckerberg, I see no comfort or solutions coming today from Facebook on that front. There’s reason to worry, says Fatemeh Khatibloo, a principal analyst at Forrester. “There are very good reasons to be concerned that a Facebook company is on the leading edge of development here.”

VR is going to be bigger than people realize.

What will the future bring?

All the breadcrumbs are already out there for Facebook’s eventual AR headset, or glasses. But Zuckerberg seems in no rush to get there. He offered no answers when I asked how things will proceed after so many Facebook executive departures at Oculus over the last few years, choosing instead to reiterate that “VR is going to be a central part of this. I said before that VR is going to be bigger than people realize.”

He sees the already-working VR hardware as a way to workshop the future. “Certainly we’re doing more long-term research now focused on AR as well. But I think the commitment to VR is certainly still strong, and that’s the technology path that we’re going to use to get there.”

In the future, I see hand tracking on the Oculus Quest, and a budget VR-only HoloLens from Microsoft. And maybe, like Apple working within mobile to figure out AR, Facebook will use VR in the same way. It’s probably the right move for a new world that’s still weird and unproven. “They’re putting together the pieces, and they’re all helping because this is such a new arena,” says Tuong Nguyen, senior principal analyst at Gartner, about Oculus’ efforts to date. “I don’t think anybody has the answer yet but they’re all discovering a piece of the answer.”

The Oculus Quest is an impressive VR headset that will keep getting better. But with new technology on the horizon, there’s a lot more that still needs to happen. The Oculus Quest isn’t forever, it’s just the hardware for right now.

“If AR were possible to deliver tomorrow, then it’s not like we’re the company that you would expect to go do that,” Zuckerberg says. But he believes Facebook’s work in VR and optics will pave the way when the moment is right.

Source: CNet

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