When Facebook acquired Oculus Rift nearly a year ago, the social network giant was clearly announcing that it had ambitions in the field of Virtual Reality. The Facebook F8 Developer Conference in San Francisco in late March underlined this ambition as the company gave some strong indications as to what it is now planning to do.

VR Now Central to Facebook Strategy

Facebook’s annual F8 conference is one of the flagship events in Silicon Valley. The gathering gives priority to developers who come to find out about new products and progress at Mark Zuckerberg’s outfit. The basic intention is to encourage them to develop new apps and products for the Facebook ecosystem or simply use Facebook solutions – Facebook for Business, advertising, analytics, and so on – themselves. In addition to information about Messenger, the messaging platform, and non-profit web access partnership internet.org, Facebook devoted a lot of time this year to Virtual Reality (VR) and its plans for Oculus Rift, which is scheduled to launch commercially this year. The key message was that VR is now a central plank in the strategy of the firm that is on a mission to ‘connect the world’.

VR a major field for development

In March 2014 Facebook bought Oculus VR – which was then developing the famous virtual reality headset Oculus Rift – for $2 billion.  At the time this looked an intriguing move as Zuckerberg’s firm, had not until then shown any particular interest in Virtual Reality. Many Oculus VR fans who had supported the project on Kickstarter reacted sharply to the takeover, unwilling to believe that Facebook had the right credentials. However, Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey stated that bringing Oculus together with one of the Web giants was a long-term project and accepted that there was bound to be some antagonism in the short run.

While many were set against the acquisition and many more found it incomprehensible at the time, Facebook shed more light on its aims and strategy for VR at the recent developer conference. Michael Abrash, Oculus Chief Scientist at Facebook, underlined that VR is one of ‟Facebook’s major priorities” claiming also that "virtual reality, done right, really is reality, as far as the observer is concerned". During his keynote speech, Abrash took his audience through a number of auditory tricks and optical illusions in order to demonstrate that reality is in fact no more than the way the brain interprets external stimuli. Accordingly, Facebook is now working on creating sufficiently immersive experiences for the brain to create an ‘alternative reality’. In addition to the games which will be impacted by Oculus Rift, Facebook apparently intends to develop it to support new forms of communication as well.

Making VR a "social" experience

“Moments of bringing people together is what we’re trying to do at Facebook. It’s the core of our mission, whether those are real or virtual,” emphasised Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Schroepfer. This will clearly be the main thrust of Facebook’s VR development – i.e. reinventing communication and delivering a more ‘social’ experience. With the launch of Facebook Messenger four years ago and its acquisition of WhatsApp over a year ago Facebook has already been expanding the entry points to its ecosystem, a major part of which is based on communication, under its famous slogan: ‘connect the world’. Adapting Oculus Rift technology to support communication can therefore be seen as an incremental change, not a sudden revolution. ‟This sensation that you really are in a given place: that’s the role of virtual reality”, argued Schroepfer.

At the conference an entire area dubbed ‘The Garage’ was set up for developers to test Facebook’s latest products and services. Unsurprisingly, a large space was devoted to Oculus and its various applications. There was also a ’teleportation centre’ available with the Samsung Gear VR headset that you could use to give yourself the sensation of being live on the Facebook campus, which was in reality several kilometres away.  So clearly ‘telepresence’ is another area Facebook is working on with a view to creating immersive experiences that can be shared by several different people – again turning VR into a social experience. The official launch of Oculus Rift is planned for this year, and indications are that it may well generate a number of novel ideas for Facebook’s messaging services.

By Arthur de Villemandy