Facebook’s Journey in Virtual Reality: R&D & Innovation From 2014 – 2016

by ARandVRTech

Facebook acquired Oculus VR Inc. in 2014 and since then there has been no looking back for the tech giant. 

For the uninitiated in the virtual reality space, in this article, we try to get you upto speed with what Facebook has been doing all this years. This is the first article in the series tracking Facebook’s virtual reality developments till Year 2016. Hope you get a brief idea and understanding of how the immersive technologies are growing.

Facebook’s mission statement is – ‘Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.’ And we would like to add, which is already apparent, with use of state of the art technology. From connecting people in a college dorm to connecting the whole world, there is a lot that still needs to be done.

Before we talk about Facebook’s Journey in virtual reality and augmented reality development, let’s try and give you some perspective in order to map Facebook’s progress. There are mostly five senses when it comes to interaction in the real world, vision, touch, audio (talking and listening), smell and taste. In virtual reality, we try to imitate the real world interactions and hence the goal for any company dealing in VR should be to create a development path to integrate all these senses into VR and enable interactions and engagements in the virtual world.

Facebook acquired Oculus VR

Facebook acquired Oculus VR Inc. in 2014 for US$ 2 Billion. Oculus was founded in 2012 and had already been championing the VR domain with it’s world famous Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. Before being acquired, Oculus had already received orders for about 75000 SDKs for its VR headset.

Since acquiring Oculus, Facebook started its annual Oculus connect conference which is generally held in the month of September. At the time of this article being written, we are already in September of Year 2020 and the annual event is schedule for 16th September. In it’s 7th edition, the annual event has been renamed from Oculus connect to Facebook connect. We’ll talk about the whole restructuring within Facebook in the immersive technology domain a tad bit later. Let’s go back to great things that happened post acquiring Oculus.

At F8 annual developer conference in 2015, which is different from Oculus connect conference, Facebook announced that it will focus on computer vision, audio, haptics and tracking in the virtual world. Just to share facts, F8 developer conference is intended for entrepreneurs, start-ups and developers who work on building products and services around Facebook, not just VR but almost everything else. F8 name comes from Facebook’s traditional 8 hour hackathons.

Oculus Rift
Image Source: Facebook

Consumer virtual reality device: Samsung Gear VR, Powered by Oculus

Facebook then in September 2015, at its second edition of Oculus connect conference announced that Samsung and Oculus have jointly developed Gear VR to take the consumer virtual reality device mainstream. With Samsung’s hardware and Oculus’s leading VR software, portable Gear VR went on to give best in class virtual reality experience to the consumers. To experience content with Gear VR, all one required was their Samsung’s flagship mobile phone. The mobile phone actually fits in the Gear VR, screen facing towards you and you can watch content as a three dimensional virtual reality experience.

Virtual reality is a powerful medium with which one can create any experience they wish to. Empowering people to create these virtual experiences is the key. When we talk about Virtual reality experience, we refer to the content that we view or interact with while wearing the virtual reality headsets. Facebook has always been clear on that they cannot do everything alone, so they launch Oculus software development kits to enable developers to design immersive experiences for virtual reality.

Quality virtual reality content is the key for a good immersive experience

The content on Oculus Rift and Gear VR started with 3D videos and games. These being rich in graphics are able to provide for a captivating experience to the users. So in the their library of content you will find a lot of brilliant high octane games. Gear VR actually made gaming in VR famous. One of the reasons for its wide spread acceptance, of course apart from the rich experience was the price point of US$ 99.

I an attempt to curate some high quality content, Facebook explored Cinematic VR. It tied up with Hollywood studios and Netflix. You could watch movies and other content in HD in a virtual theatre with your Gear VR. Gear VR started shipping out in November. During that time, haptics was not a part of virtual experiences and users could use a bluetooth gamepad for gaming purposes. 

Development of VR content and experiences is an evolving field. We are still in the nascent stage of the technology and a lot is yet to be explored. Facebook, in accordance with its mission of building communities, launched Oculus Concepts, a part of its Oculus store where developers can put experimental apps and games for other members of the community to explore. This helps them get real time feedback and community support of where their development is going, how it can be further evolved and converted into a product that would be a first class VR development.

Introducing touch in virtual reality

During the same year i.e. 2015, Facebook also introduced a prototype of Oculus Touch called Half Moon. (P.S: I am instantly reminded of Dumbledore’s half moon glasses) This was launched as a hand tracking accessory along with Oculus Rift. When launched, users could actually use there hands with the VR experiences. These hand tracked controllers allowed users to take the experience of virtual reality gaming and applications to another level.

When Facebook talks about bringing the world together, groups and communities come instantly to the mind. Social networking applications enable people to socialise, share thoughts, photos, videos with their friends and family on a digital platform. Virtual reality can help to take it a step forward by creating a virtual environment where friends and family can hang out, irrespective of many miles of physical distance between them. Till now we were talking about virtual reality experienced by individuals. In February of 2016, Facebook announced that it would be investing in social VR experiences. 

In June 2016, Facebook launched 360 degree photos. Consider to be a feature taking best of both the 2D and virtual reality worlds as a service offering. A normal desktop Facebook user could rotate the photo and see the 360 view while a person could also enjoy the same using their Gear VR for a much more immersive experience.

Now we know that Gear VR uses a smart phone to enable the virtual experiences while Oculus Rift is connected to a PC using a cable to enable the device. Facebook has time and again come up with announcements about PCs optimised for Oculus, having faster optic fibre cable for better performance or as a matter of fact a longer cable to facilitate easy movement around by the user while paying a game or being in an experience.

Social VR – The future

At the Oculus Connect 3rd edition in 2016, Mark Zuckerberg gave a first live demo in Social collaborative VR. He was able to create a virtual avatar of himself using computer vision, was able to interact with his colleagues who were present with him in their virtual avatars. Their avatars had lip movements in sync with actual speech which made these virtual avatars much life like. They have made a custom library that matches speech signals to visual lip movement to facilitate the same.

In December of 2016, Oculus Touch were finally launched along with 54 custom games and experiences to go with it. Oculus Touch introduced haptics in virtual reality. Now users could use their hands for a deeper immersive experience.

From 2014 to 2016, in just about 2 years time, one is able to track Facebook’s immense growth in the virtual reality space. With their state of the art devices Oculus Rift and Gear VR, countless content and curation tie ups, engaging the developer community and finally introducing touch in addition to its visual experiences, Facebook has shown what where the future is headed with virtual reality.

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