It’s no secret by now that Facebook is betting on virtual reality as its next big thing.
We’re already starting to see a little of the future that Facebook is envisioning: In June 2016, Facebook added a feature to let you take and upload 360-degree photos, paving the way towards our VR future.
But Facebook has grander ambitions, as it tries to push a new wave of virtual reality movies, TV shows, and videos, as a way to incentivise the whole world to get on board.
And the same way that “Terminator 2” brought about a revolution in using computer graphics in film, Facebook is trying to usher in a new era in movies, TV, and any other video by using virtual reality to make them more social.
Today, we’re seeing the first step in that master plan, as Facebook releases unto the world the open source schematics and instructions for its Surround 360 camera — its flying saucer-shaped virtual reality camera for taking videos in a total 360-degree sphere, first unveiled at the Facebook F8 conference a few months back.
With those schematics out in the world, says Facebook Engineering Director Brian Cabral, people can do whatever they want with the Surround 360 camera design. Build their own, make smaller, cheaper versions, make bigger, premium versions, whatever. It’s designed to be easy to assemble from readily-available parts and hackable.
Because the plans are released as open source, people and companies are free to build, market, and sell those derivatives themselves (Facebook isn’t selling it directly).
The videos made with these cameras, so long as they stick to the standard set here by Facebook, will be ideal for the social network’s own Oculus Rift VR headset, pushing the whole market forward. And the test videos I saw are great, and will definitely leave visually-minded folks wanting to explore the possibilities.
“We wanted high-quality results to inspire people,” Cabral says.
But it’s all just part of a subtle master plan.
The master plan
Cabral says that the best way to think about where Facebook is going with virtual reality is to think about Facebook itself. When you think about Facebook, it’s not as a photo sharing service, or a way to post videos, or links. It’s much bigger than any one of those aspects.
“Is it text? Is it video? It’s all of those things,” Cabral says.
Similarly, Facebook is looking to mash movies, TV, virtual reality, and video games together into a brand-new format unique to virtual reality.
The Oculus Rift headset has so far found its most success among video gamers, presenting immersive virtual worlds for players to explore. But the Surround 360 camera is designed to take super-high-definition virtual reality video. You know, from real life.
Cabral and his team demonstrated a few videos shot with Surround 360 for me, including a courtside look at the champion Cleveland Cavaliers warming up at the NBA Finals. Those videos are super-impressive, providing a depth-of-field that I’ve never seen before in virtual reality. But it’s a very different, more passive way of using virtual reality than playing a video game.
Where things get interesting
This is where things get interesting. Cabral says that from Facebook’s and Oculus’ point of view, there’s no difference between the video game stuff and the real-life stuff when it comes to virtual reality. He describes them as “orthogonal.”
Instead, Cabral describes virtual reality as a “continuum.”
He envisions a world where you’re (maybe, hypothetically) watching a live NBA game with a friend, in virtual reality. You’d “see” them sitting next to you, and also, there are computer graphics projected over the court, providing statistics, instant replays, and memes from the internet, all while simulating the feeling of sitting courtside with a buddy.
So, much like how Facebook combines photos, and text, and comments, and GIFs, and all of that into one big social experience, Cabral sees virtual reality doing the same thing in a much more immersive way. In the past, Facebook has likened virtual reality to “teleportation.”
It’s a new, more social way of thinking about video that fits right into Facebook’s mission. And the same way that “Terminator 2” and “Jurassic Park” ushered in a new era of computer graphics that resulted in their presence being totally non-noteworthy in movies of today, Cabral sees this social philosophy as the wave of the future.
But before any of that can happen, people need to actually be able to film in virtual reality. The plan is that with the Surround 360 providing such an easy way to shoot high-quality virtual reality video, it will be easy for filmmakers both amateur and professional to get started. With the film community making their own twists on the camera, too, it will be accessible to everyone for very specific needs.
Once the power to make virtual reality movies is totally commoditized, Cabral explains, then the curve of when all of this takes off can really accelerate. He says Facebook has talked to major “commercial artists,” and that it’s “not a whether” this happens, just a matter of when.
“It’s happening,” Cabral says.