Facebook-owned Oculus recently made a key hire that could shed some light on the company’s nascent augmented reality ambitions.
In July, Facebook poached Pasi Saarikko from Microsoft. A nearly four-year veteran there, Saarikko had been a lead optical design and optical architect for its futuristic HoloLens.
The two products are in the same family, but different. Facebook’s Oculus is virtual reality, which means it completely immerses you in a computer-generated world. Microsoft’s HoloLens uses augmented reality, which superimposes 3D images into the real world — like a virtual Skype-screen or Minecraft blocks.
Facebook’s futuristic ambitions
Facebook plans to release its first virtual reality headset for consumers in the first quarter of 2016. The device, a goggles-and-headset combo that promises immersion like you’ve never experienced, takes users completely out of the real world and into a digital one.
However, comments from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the recent Vanity Fair Summit, combined with the hire of Pasi Saarikko, show that Facebook has its eyes on augmented reality, too.
When asked whether Facebook was working on augmented reality, Zuckerberg answered bluntly:
“Yeah. It’s a bit further out, but yeah.”
Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash, who joined him on stage, then expanded on the idea.
“AR is harder,” he said. “There are a whole host of challenges having to do with how you do the optics and displays to get photons into the eyes, with how you do tracking in novel environments, with how you have something on your face that’s comfortable all day and socially acceptable, and has enough power. There are just a lot more challenges there. I think virtual reality is here-and-now. I think AR will be here. But it’s a long road to get there.”
We noticed Saarikko’s hire thanks to a recent note by analysts at Piper Jaffray.
Another key hire from Google
At the beginning of October, Google was awarded a patent for an augmented reality system. As pointed out by Piper Jaffray analyst Gene Munster, one of the inventors of the technology was an engineer named Evan Richards.
But shortly after the patent was originally filed in 2014, Richards was hired away by Oculus. He still works there as an optical engineer.
Both Microsoft, with its HoloLens and Google, tangentially, through its investment in Magic Leap, are diving into augmented reality. It makes sense that Facebook would be upping its investment and research in that area too.
“As for timing, we believe an mixed reality product from Facebook (Oculus) is likely 2-3+ years away,” Munster writes. “MR will take longer to arrive because of the challenges in optics, batteries, applications and computer vision. Longer-term, we believe that MR and VR headsets could converge to offer both experiences separately depending on the environment.”
We’d love to know more about what’s going on inside Oculus — in the past, and now. Reach out to [email protected] with stories and tips.