Why Software Is Crucial For Facebook’s Vision Of Virtual Reality

October 7, 2016, 12:03 AM UTC
Mark Zuckerberg attendes Mobile World Congress 2015
BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 02: Founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg speaks during his keynote conference during the first day of the Mobile World Congress 2015 at the Fira Gran Via complex on March 2, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. The annual Mobile World Congress hosts some of the wold's largest communication companies, with many unveiling their latest phones and wearables gadgets. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
David Ramos/ Getty Images

In virtual reality, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bares a striking resemblance to pop music superstar Justin Timberlake.

During Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality developer conference in San Jose, Calif. on Thursday, he strapped on an Oculus Rift headset and showed the audience his vision of the future for the cutting-edge technology. Because this is Facebook (FB), Zuckerberg’s demonstration, of course, leaned heavily on people communicating with one another.

But instead of merely sending texts or chatting via a messaging app, people in virtual reality can talk to digital representations, or avatars of each other, and play games like chess, conduct business meetings, and visit far-off places like Mars.

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At one point, Zuckerberg took audience members to his home to check on his pet dog Beast and call his wife Priscilla Chan by bringing up a virtual phone screen that appeared in his field of vision.

“Why do you look like JT?” asked Chan in reference to Zuckerberg’s Timberlake-esque virtual avatar as the audience laughed. “How is Beast doing?”

After the little bit of chit-chat, Zuckerberg then took what he called a “modern family selfie” of himself, Priscilla, and Beast to demonstrate the “type of experiences” he hopes will become commonplace as virtual reality matures. Central to his vision was the power of software to bring virtual reality to life, so to speak.

Still, Zuckerberg’s vision has a long way to go before it becomes reality.

Mark Zuckerbook takes a virtual selfie of himself, his wife Priscilla, and his dog Beast in front of a virtual Facebook executive.

Investors and companies like Facebook, Google, and Sony are pouring millions of dollars into virtual reality, but analysts seem to be divided as to whether the technology is catching on with consumers. The high cost of top-of-the line VR headsets coupled with the need to buy expensive computers are major obstacles.

More importantly, however, is that although VR hardware is more affordable than it’s ever been and has the ability to create a sense of “immersion” in which people feel like they are actually inside a digital environment, there’s a dearth in compelling VR content.

One of the takeaways from a recent survey about the state of VR by law firm Perkins Coie and VR advocacy group Upload showed that companies need to create more captivating VR games, films, or other media for the technology to really catch on. One survey respondent explained that popular Nintendo and Sega video game consoles became top-sellers because people couldn’t stop playing games like Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog.

It’s no wonder why Zuckerberg’s Oculus keynote emphasized the importance of software and developers to spur the VR industry to create more immersive apps, like ones that let users watch movies together in virtual worlds or play intense war games.

He mentioned rivals in the VR space like Samsung, HTC, and Google (GOOG), but explained that the increasing number of companies involved shows that virtual reality “is really happening.”

“The first step is getting basic hardware out there,” said Zuckerberg who acknowledged that the Rift’s debut was plagued by shipping delays that caused “a bit of a slow start.”

It should be noted that Zuckerberg, during his presentation, did not mention Oculus co-founder Palmer Lucky, who has appeared at Oculus developer events in the past. Recent revelations that Lucky had been funding a pro-Donald Trump organization created some backlash among some Oculus Rift video game makers.

As Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash explained to the audience, the goal of the Oculus research team is to “make the package of technology” that developers need to build apps on top of. It’s too much for Facebook (let alone any one company) to build both the hardware and compelling software apps to jumpstart the nascent VR industry.

“All of you are working on virtual reality right now out of faith that it will become incredibly cool and important,” Abrash said.

Facebook recognizes that the success of its Oculus Rift— the company has not yet revealed how many devices it has sold—is dependent on compelling software, and on Thursday it showed how serious it is to entice developers to create that software.

The company said it would give $250 million to organizations building VR software, on top of an existing $250 million commitment. Additionally, Facebook released a new VR software development kit, React VR, that will supposedly let coders build apps for an upcoming web browser called Carmel to run and accommodate VR headsets.

Facebook, however, is not the only company trying to make it easier for coders to build VR apps. Google, for example, is promoting its rival Daydream virtual reality toolkit for creating VR software.

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Facebook, HTC, and Google want developers to build the next Mario or the popular puzzle game Tetris so that their VR headsets become must-haves. To do so, they are building software tools to make it easier for coders to build VR apps while also handing them millions of dollars.

“Our industry has made more progress in the last couple of years than I think any of us could have ever hoped for,” Zuckerberg said. He later added, “The next phase is building the next great software experiences.”

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