Anyone who follows the VR (virtual reality) space knew it was only a matter of time. Facebook-owned Oculus VR has officially gone untethered. At its recent Oculus Connect conference the maker of the popular Rift VR headset announced two new developments on its path to fully untethered virtual reality. But behind it all is a strategy to take social media off of your 2D screen and into the virtual world.
During a conference keynote Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told the audience that Facebook has a goal to bring one billion people into VR, and key to achieving that is to hit what he called the sweet spot between the affordability of mobile VR devices like Samsung's Gear VR and the power of PC-based VR, but without the tethering.
|Oculus Go is a standalone mobile VR headset that will be fully compatible with apps developed for the Samsung Gear VR. (Image source: Facebook / Oculus)|
In early 2018 the company will be releasing Oculus Go, a mobile VR headset aimed at delivering the same mobile VR experience as the Gear VR and its ilk, only without the need for a high-end mobile phone to act as the screen and brains of the whole thing. While it doesn't offer any positional tracking, the fully self-contained headset does feature three degrees of freedom (3DOF) head tracking and the same 110-degree field of view as the Rift headset, as well as built-in spatial audio. At a $199 price point the Oculus Go is slightly more expensive than the Gear VR, but perhaps Oculus is betting consumers will pay a little bit more for a standalone experience and factor in that they won't need a $600+ phone to make it all work.
The big selling point for developers is that the Go is binary compatible with the Gear VR so any developers already creating apps for Samsung's device will find they already work on the Oculus Go with the same SDK, even with Unity or Unreal Engine integration.
Inside-Out Tracking Is On the Way
Mobile VR is nice for some experiences, but what enthusiasts have really been waiting for is a true untethered VR experience, one that allows positional tracking without the need for an array of external sensors. Microsoft has already taken the lead on this with this series of mixed reality (MR) headsets from the likes of Acer, Dell,HP, and even Samsung that are set to begin releasing as soon as later this year. Microsoft has said that a staple of its MR hardware will be inside-out tracking, wherein internal sensors in the headsets will track users' position and movement, removing the need for external sensors and cumbersome external wiring.
|Facebook VP of VR Hugo Barra told the Oculus Connect audience that Santa Cruz uses IR sensors embedded into the controllers themselves as well as the headset to give users a full range of motion. (Image source: Facebook / Oculus Connect)|
Though the Oculus Rift is the headset that brought VR back into the collective consciousness, the company has been relatively mum on its plans for a headset with inside-out tracking. Last year at Oculus Connect the company gave scant details and revealed an early prototype of a headset codenamed Project Santa Cruz. But this year Hugo Barra, the VP of VR at Facebook, unveiled a lot more about Project Santa Cruz, including a new, sleeker working prototype as well as new hand-tracked controllers.
Barra told the keynote audience that Project Santa Cruz's new controllers use the same sensor technology that allows for inside-out tracking in the Santa Cruz headset in conjunction with a constellation of tiny infrared LEDs embedded into the devices. The headset tracks the controllers with four ultra-wide angle IR sensors embedded into its front. Barra said the placement of sensors allows a greater range of motion for users, even allowing the controllers to be held over the users' head. He said Oculus initially tried to use only two sensors but found that “tracking controllers with just your visual field of view in VR really restrict your experience and what you can do with your hands.”
Oculus is expecting to release developer version of Santa Cruz sometime in early 2018.
Social Will Come First
Clearly Oculus wants to maintain its position as a pack leader in the VR headset market, and it has unique incentive to do so as a subsidiary of Facebook. One must remember, while Facebook has been dipping its toes in everything from AI to drones and autonomous cars, the company is still the house that social media built.
“Nothing is ever going to replace being with someone in person or doing something physically but when we can't experience those things, when we run up against the limits of reality, VR is going to make our reality that much better,” Zuckerberg said.
Earlier this year Zuckerberg announced Facebook Spaces, a VR environment where users can essentially do all the things they do on Facebook – talk, share photos, watch videos, play games, ect – but now in a 3D virtual world. This year Zuckerberg demoed Facebook Spaces at Oculus Connect by taking a rather ill-advised virtual trip to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico that drew immediate criticism.
There's also the matter of graphics. Right now the look of Facebook Spaces is more akin to Second Life or the Nintendo Wii than Ready Player One or a William Gibson novel. However, Facebook has been the first company to lay claim to VR as a social experience independent of being a space for multiplayer video games or collaborative work.
If Facebook wants the public to embrace social media in 3D environments over 2D screens its going to have to make the experience as graceful and comfortable as possible. And untethered, inside-out tracked VR that offers a full range of movement and motion is going to be a big part of that.
There is also a question of how Oculus will fit into the larger VR/AR/MR landscape. Santa Cruz will be a PC peripheral, which would put it in direction competition with Microsoft's MR headsets. While it is unclear how Santa Cruz may implement into the Windows ecosystem, it could present a major monkey wrench to Microsoft's vision for a world in which VR headsets are as ubiquitous and easy to use as computer mice and keyboards.
Zuckerberg's bold goal of a billion VR users won't happen with just gamers, the core audience for VR right now, and it won't even come when you add in enterprise users. The billion Zuckerberg is talking about are those billions of Facebook users who aren't necessarily gamers, designers, or engineers, but who log into Facebook daily. But if it's going to get its core user base to embrace a headset over a computer or smartphone screen Facebook knows the price is going to have to be right, and the technology is definitely going to have to be the very best it can be.
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Chris Wiltz is a senior editor at Design News covering emerging technologies, including VR/AR, AI, and robotics.