Facebook offered us a glimpse into the future of internet-enabled socializing today at its Oculus Connect 3 event in San Jose, California.
Perhaps the definitive virtual reality company of today, Facebook’s Oculus is hard at work on making VR easy and accessible for everyone. Mark Zuckerberg took the wrapping off of some Oculus-enabled VR features that so thoroughly complement Facebook that it seems like the two were designed to work together. (They definitely were.) As he says it, the goal is “to make virtual reality the next major computing platform.” The bigger role Facebook can play to that end, the more the company can remain the dominant technology organization that it is.
The vision that was unveiled today might easily serve as an answer to the question: What would Facebook.com be like if it were an entirely VR-based experience? On stage, Zuckerberg demonstrated technology that calls to mind the stuff of sci-fi movies and novels. Custom-made VR avatars can interact with each other in a variety of situations — it will perhaps be totally normal for you and your friends to hang out together in virtual reality, whether it’s to play a game or simply inhabit a surreal environment, like Mars or the bottom of the ocean.
The name of the game is to immediately connect people in a meaningful way, and as virtual reality can be easily built to serve almost any purpose, this will literally change the way people spend time together. For example, Facebook is betting that it will be normal for us to take VR selfies of our pixelated faces and bodies to post to its social platform. Virtual selfies with a virtual selfie stick: It’s a thing.
Zuckerberg didn't leave out Oculus hardware during the event. Though the first version was released earlier this year, Oculus has clearly been hard at work to create a better version. It remains a black set of goggles, though there’s a major design change: It's cable- and tether-free, meaning your head feels no resistance as you pan and tilt to look around in your virtual world.
There’s a major technical upgrade as well, as the next generation of the Oculus Rift requires no external hardware to track your head movements. “Tracking” is a fundamental component of VR technology, as a computer can’t tell where you should be in your virtual world if it can’t tell where you are in the real world; looking left in reality ought to redraw your VR experience such that you’re “looking left.” The new headset integrates all the tracking hardware, meaning you don’t need to connect it to a PC to do the heavy lifting; it all happens onboard.
Both the new headset and the VR avatar platform were demonstrated today as prototypes — there’s no launch date or pricing data out there yet. It’s self-evident that Facebook is severely invested in making virtual reality a central component to any tech user’s life, throwing its full weight into the pursuit. But for now, today’s revelations can only serve as a glance into the not-too-distant future.