I finally understand why Facebook bought Oculus

Mamta badkar oculus rift business insider cropped

Remember computers before the internet? They were helpful for games and getting work done, but they didn’t achieve their full potential before networking came along. And since that time, we’ve seen an explosion in apps that ultimately help us communicate more efficiently, even across countries and continents.

After my demo with social virtual reality company AltspaceVR on Thursday, I am convinced this transformation will happen to virtual reality, too. And it will be profound.

Right now, virtual reality is in its infancy. Companies are pouring millions — and in Facebook’s case, billions — into this new immersive technology that can transport you anywhere. But, for many people, especially those that haven’t tried it yet, it’s still a vague concept, and it’s tough to truly understand the potential impact of VR.

Henry blodget trying oculus rift with brendan iribe ceo

If you look online, most virtual reality demos you’ll see involve video games, or simply standing in one position as you take in the world around you. Our editor-in-chief Henry Blodget got to try the Oculus Rift recently, and he stood on top of a skyscraper and simply looked around. But despite the novelty of it all, it’s tough for many people to answer the question, “Why would I spend hundreds of dollars on this? Where are the killer apps?”

Well, I’m here to tell you: Social is the killer app for virtual reality.

Founded two years ago, AltspaceVR has raised $US5.2 million in one funding round thus far to create social applications within virtual spaces — but instead of creating a stack of standalone applications, the company is working on simple ways to easily connect and convert the 2D internet into a 3D virtual environment, where you can, for example, watch the Super Bowl with 70 other people in a giant virtual living room.

I’ll admit, I was a bit sceptical going into the demo. Why would I want to spend time and money buying and setting up a virtual reality rig just to watch YouTube videos with a few friends? I needed extra convincing.

Well, now I’m convinced. Instead of trying to wax poetic on my experience, let me give you the CliffsNotes version of what I did and saw:

  • After donning the VR headgear, throwing on some headphones, and choosing my customisable robot avatar that looked like EVE from the Pixar movie “Wall-E,” in seconds, I was standing in a giant Japanese zen garden, which looked like it was actually floating in the sky. I could see a small dojo, a giant chess board, and off in the distance, a giant screen showing rows of web applications like YouTube and Hulu. It was beautifully unreal.
This is an earlier version of AltspaceVR’s avatars. The new ones have arms and hands that move with the Oculus-wearer. AltspaceVR
  • Another robot suddenly appeared a few feet in front of me — it was my host, AltspaceVR’s founder and CEO Eric Romo. Thanks to the Leap Motion controller sitting in front of the Oculus Rift headset, Romo and I were able to see our own hands, wave at each other, and fist-bump. At times, Eric’s name would pop up next to his avatar: I could easily imagine a Facebook extension to let me and this person I met in VR as a friend.
  • As Romo explained to me all the features of this 3D world, his hand gestures and head movements were being translated to VR perfectly in real-time. This was noteworthy to me: Even though it was a robot avatar, the gestures made it feel like I was really in a room with this person. Even in video games, avatars have normal idle motions that feel obviously unrealistic. This was not the case; his hands moved as he talked, and his head even subtly leaned forward when he laughed.
  • With a mouse, we could easily teleport to any part of the “map” of this Japanese garden. Here, Romo showed me the power of 3D audio: When he teleported far away, his voice sounded far off. Then he could teleport right next to me, and whisper in my ear. Even when I simply turned away from him, his voice sounded quieter. It was just one more facet to make this VR experience feel truly immersive and real.
Chess games are much more interesting when the pieces are as big as you, and you’re on a floating Japanese zen garden in heaven. AltspaceVR
  • We zipped over to the giant chess board, where Romo explained that applications like these don’t need to be built from the ground up, which could take weeks or months: Rather, this was a 2D web application that had been converted to 3D in a matter of hours. AltspaceVR is working on making a neat set of rules for developers to easily port their Javascript works into virtual reality, which will save a ton of time for developers, and really open the doors in terms of content.
  • Next, we visited a new space. This time, we were in a giant, modern-looking living room with a floating staircase and a couch-lined alcove highlighted by a TV screen that was probably 100+ feet. I totally get why people would want to watch the Super Bowl here: Why go out to a crowded bar, or stay in your cramped New York apartment, when you can be teleported to a massive mansion that would probably cost millions of dollars, and be amongst as many friends as you wanted while you watched the big game?
Hanging out in a sweet virtual living room. AltspaceVR

  • Finally, before we ended our demo, Romo summoned a giant solar system in the middle of the room. With so many realistic elements, it was incredibly cool to see a giant sun appear right next to the couch, with a few orbiting planets spinning around, just to remember that anything is possible in the virtual world.

The technology isn’t perfect yet, but I finally understood the true potential for virtual reality. Tasks and games are all well and good, but social is where it counts. As humans, we ultimately want to belong, and we use technology to achieve better connections to the people we care about. As AltspaceVR showed me, the next major frontier for virtual reality is connecting people.

Putting dozens of people in a virtual room together is extremely similar to putting real people in a real room together: You can chat, play music, watch movies together, and you can float around the room to easily join other people’s conversations. But, the virtual world also opens up new opportunities: Not everyone can afford a giant mansion to host 100 friends for a “House of Cards” marathon, but if you have an Oculus Rift, you can.

It sounds like these are the types of experiences Facebook is interested in, too. During its F8 conference, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer questioned why we like to go to the movies with friends even though you don’t typically chat with others while watching a film. “It’s a moment in time when you and your friends are together in a space,” he said. “That’s what we’re trying to do at Facebook.”

The most exciting part of my demo with Altspace was remembering that this is just the tip of the iceberg. If we can let developers easily create 3D applications that take hours to write, instead of weeks or months, we’ll be able to enjoy and remember new experiences with family and friends — regardless of geography, wealth, or physical limitations. As Christopher McCandless famously wrote, “Happiness is only real when shared.”

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