SAN FRANCISCO – For years, the idea that virtual reality would become mainstream has remained exactly that: virtual.
Though tech giants like Facebook and Sony have spent billions of dollars perfecting the experience, virtual reality has remained a niche toy for hobbyists willing to pay thousands of dollars, often for a clunky VR headset attached to powerful gaming -Computer is connected.
That changed last year in the pandemic. As people began spending more of their lives digitally, they started buying more VR headsets. VR hardware sales soared, led by Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, a headset that was launched last fall, according to research firm IDC.
To build on the momentum, Facebook launched a virtual reality service called Horizon Workrooms on Thursday. The product, which Quest 2 owners can download for free, provides a virtual meeting room where headset users can gather like a face-to-face meeting. Participants join in with a customizable cartoon avatar of themselves. Interactive virtual whiteboards line the walls so people can write and draw as if they were 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. “I think we’ll be living in a mixed reality future one way or another,” said Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, this week at a media roundtable held in virtual reality with workrooms.
At the event, the avatars of Mr. Zuckerberg and about a dozen Facebook employees, reporters and technical support staff gathered in an open and well-lit virtual conference room. Mr. Zuckerberg’s avatar wore a long-sleeved henley shirt in dark Facebook blue. (My avatar had a plaid red flannel shirt.) Since Workrooms only shows participants as floating torsos sitting around a wooden table, no one worried about choosing a pair of pants.
Facebook was early on in virtual reality. In 2014, it paid $ 2 billion to buy VR headset startup Oculus VR. Back then, Mr. Zuckerberg promised that technology would “make it possible to experience the impossible”.
The deal sparked a wave of acquisitions and financing in virtual reality. Investments in VR startups soared, while companies like HTC and Sony also promised VR headsets for the masses. Microsoft has developed the HoloLens, glasses that project holograms.
But the hype quickly fizzled out. The first generation of most VR hardware – including Facebook’s Oculus Rift – was expensive. Almost all headsets required users to be connected to a PC. There weren’t any obvious “killer apps” to lure people into the devices. Worse, some people felt nauseous after using the products.
The next generation of VR headsets focused on reducing costs. Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard and Google Daydream urged all consumers to put on protective glasses and use their smartphones as VR screens. These efforts also failed because smartphones were not powerful enough to offer an immersive virtual reality experience.
“People always asked me, ‘Which VR glasses should I buy?’” Says Nick Fajt, CEO of Rec Room, a video game popular with virtual reality enthusiasts. “And I always replied: ‘Just wait’.”
In order to adapt, some companies started offering virtual reality not for the masses but for narrow spaces. Magic Leap, a start-up that was contesting the next big thing in augmented reality computing, switched to selling VR devices to businesses. Microsoft has gone in a similar direction, with a particular focus on military contracts, although it said it “absolutely” is still working toward a mainstream consumer product.
In 2017 even Mr. Zuckerberg admitted in a winning call that Facebook’s bet on Oculus “took a little longer” than he originally thought.
Facebook spent the next few years research and development to eliminate the need for a wired cable connecting the VR headset to the PC to free up the user’s range of motion while keeping the device powerful enough to create a feeling of virtual immersion to convey.
It also worked on inside-out tracking, a way to monitor the position of VR headsets relative to its surroundings, and wrote new algorithms that were more energy efficient and didn’t drain a device’s battery too quickly.
Atman Binstock, chief architect at Oculus, said there have also been improvements in simultaneous location and mapping, or “SLAM tracking,” which allows a VR device to understand the unmapped space around it while also understanding its own position to be recognized within this space. Advances in SLAM tracking have helped developers build more interactive digital worlds.
The changes helped make Quest 2 available last year for $ 299, which doesn’t require a PC or other cumbersome hardware, and which was relatively easy to set up.
Facebook doesn’t release sales for Oculus, but sales of the headsets more than doubled in the first three months of Quest 2’s availability. According to estimates by analysts, Facebook has sold around five to six million of the headsets.
That was roughly the same amount Sony’s PlayStation VR, widely considered to be the most successful VR device on the market, sold from 2016, when it debuted, to 2020. (Sony has announced an upcoming VR system that will work with the PlayStation 5, its flagship game console.)
Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Facebook Reality Labs, which oversees Oculus’ product division, said Facebook has also paid tens of millions of dollars to developers to help develop games and other apps for VR. “Even when it was difficult for the entire VR in 2016, the developers had to take some of the risk from us,” he said in an interview.
Oculus has also bought several game studios and other VR-based companies like BigBox VR, Beat Games, and Sanzaru Games to create more virtual reality content.
With Workrooms, Facebook wants to take Oculus beyond pure gaming. The service should give other people a feeling of presence, even if they are perhaps on the other side of the world.
Mr. Zuckerberg sees the project as part of the next internet, one that technologists call “the metaverse”. In Zuckerberg’s story, the metaverse is a world in which people can communicate via VR or video calls, smartphones or tablets, or other devices such as data glasses or gadgets that have not yet been invented.
There people will maintain a certain sense of continuity between all the different digital worlds in which they live. For example, someone could buy a digital avatar of a shirt from a virtual reality store and then log out, but still wear that shirt to a Zoom meeting.
For the time being, this vision remains a long way off. VR adoption can be measured in tens of millions of users compared to the billions of smartphone owners. Facebook also stumbled upon and issued a recall this year for the Quest 2’s foam cushion covers after some users reported skin irritation. The company has offered all Quest 2 owners new, free silicone-padded cases.
At the Workrooms event with reporters this week, Mr. Zuckerberg spoke but had to leave the room and return to the room at some point because his digital avatar’s mouth did not move when he spoke.
“Technology that gives you that sense of presence is like the holy grail of social experience, and I think a company like ours has evolved over time,” said Mr. Zuckerberg after the bug was fixed and his mouth closed Avatars moved again. “My hope is that in the years to come people will really start to see us not primarily as a social media company, but as a ‘metaverse’ company that gives real presence.”