SAN JOSE, California — Facebook’s virtual reality ambitions are moving forward, sure, but they’re walking across a tightrope as they go.
On the one hand, the social network is extraordinary ambitious about the potential of the technology, promising it will reshape entire industries and human interaction itself — but it is also quick to caution that the tech is barely in its infancy, and may not mature for years.
It’s a fine line for the company, trying maintain excitement about the nascent platform while not over-hyping and subsequently disillusioning would-be users and developers — and these conflicting messages were on display at the company’s Oculus Connec virtual reality conference in Silicon Valley on Wednesday morning.
Andrew Bosworth, the firm’s VP of VR and AR (augmented reality), who is universally referred to as “Boz,” took to the stage during the event’s opening keynote to promise that virtual reality is a revolutionary technology on a par with the domestication of horses and the rise of heavier-than-air flight, claiming that it has the potential to disrupt “real estate” and reshape entire cities.
“I expect virtual reality to be a platform primarily centered around human connection … [that] could have a profound impact on the fabric of society,” he proclaimed.
But, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg cautioned, the technology is not even 1% of the way there yet.
New technologies are notoriously prone to cycles of extreme hype and subsequent disillusionment. If Facebook wants to see virtual reality become mainstream — and for its Oculus platform to be at a forefront of that shift — it needs to persuade both consumers and developers that it’s the Next Big Thing. But at the same time, it can’t over-promise and risk under-delivering and putting off users for good.
Hence a keynote speech from Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash, who spent his time on stage listing wild new experimental VR technologies — foviated rendering! Waveguide screens! Motion-tracking gloves! — before saying just these products are still many years away from making it into a consumer product.
Facebook is making progress, to be sure. On Wednesday, it formally announced the Oculus Quest — the first major virtual reality headset that can monitor a user’s position in a room without relying on any external computers. It’s “the all-in-one VR experience we have been waiting for,” Zuckerberg said — but still emphasised it is part of “our first generation of VR products,” and that looking forward, “the next few years are going to be a really exciting time for VR and AR.”
These grand declarations of intent also serve another purpose. Amid faltering revenue and profit growth, investors are cooling on Facebook, and its stock plummeted 25% after its last earnings call. Painting a bold vision of the future with Facebook at the centre signals to investors that there are still vast new untapped markets Facebook can conquer — and fill with precisely targeted advertisements.
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