Can Facebook make virtual reality real this time around?

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The idea that virtual reality would become mainstream has remained exactly that for years: virtual.

Even 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 high-performance 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 have skyrocketed, 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 they would 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 will live in a mixed reality future in one way or another,” said Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg at a media roundtable that was held this week in virtual reality with workrooms.

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At the event, Zuckerberg’s avatars and a dozen or so Facebook employees, reporters, and technical support staff gathered in an open and well-lit virtual conference room. Zuckerberg’s avatar wore a long-sleeved henley shirt in dark Facebook blue. (My avatar had a checkered red flannel shirt.) Since Workrooms shows participants only 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 the headset startup Oculus VR. Back then, 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 were no 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 headset should I buy?’” Said 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 narrower areas. Magic Leap, a startup 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 Zuckerberg admitted in a winning call that Facebook’s bet on Oculus “took a little longer” than he initially 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 provide a sense of virtual immersion to convey.

It also worked on inside-out tracking, a way to monitor the position of a VR headset 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 are also 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 within it To recognize space. Advances in SLAM tracking have helped developers build more interactive digital worlds.

The changes helped make Quest 2 last year for $ 299, which didn’t require a PC or other cumbersome hardware and was relatively easy to set up.

Facebook doesn’t publish sales for Oculus, but sales of the headsets more than doubled in the first three months of Quest 2’s availability. Analysts estimate that Facebook has sold 5 to 6 million headsets.

That was roughly the same amount that Sony’s PlayStation VR, widely considered the most successful VR device on the market, sold from 2016, when it launched, 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 tough for all of VR in 2016, the developers had to take some of the risk from us,” he said.

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.

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