At Oculus’ Developer Summit, VR Progress Is a Game of Inches

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Mark Zuckerberg didn’t waste much time when he walked onstage at the San Jose Convention Center on Wednesday morning to deliver the first keynote address at Oculus Connect, the virtual-reality company’s developer conference. “The future is built by the people who believe it can be better,” he said, announcing that he and his team “want to get a billion people in virtual reality.” That statement didn’t come with a deadline, as Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash (relievedly) pointed out in a later keynote, but it did underscore that Zuckerberg—as he has since Facebook acquired Oculus in 2014—sees VR as the way to future-proof Facebook’s cultural ubiquity.

Until those billion people get into headsets, though, the company seems to be doing its best to make VR easier to use—and as persistent as possible once you’re using it.

Oculus

Since Oculus Connect’s inaugural 2014 edition, the conference has evolved to be an amalgam of horn-tooting, community-thanking, and just-you-waiting. Most of all, though, it’s become a testament to the power of the step, rather than the leap. Companies like Apple and Google may release new hardware every year, but Oculus doesn’t have that luxury; a year and a half into the life of the Rift headset, the company presumably has at least another year before announcing a next generation. So instead, Oculus Connect celebrates incremental improvements to the experiences users have, rather than the devices they use to have them.

Since Oculus Connect’s inaugural 2014 edition, the conference has evolved to be an amalgam of horn-tooting, community-thanking, and just-you-waiting. Most of all, though, it’s become a testament to the power of the step, rather than the leap.

That’s not to say that there was no hardware talk. More details emerged around two “standalone” headsets, which strike a compromise between smartphone-powered mobile VR and higher-quality (and –cost) PC-tethered headsets like the Rift. The Oculus Go, Zuckerberg announced, would essentially be a self-contained mobile headset for $199, available early next year: no phone necessary, no snaking cables, but also no positional tracking, which allows users to move in space. The company also gave an encouraging progress report on Project Santa Cruz, a more powerful standalone headset prototype that uses embedded outward-facing sensors to enable positional tracking. (Earlier this year Google announced similar headsets for its Daydream platform, supposedly coming before the end of 2017, but release dates haven’t been confirmed.)

Oculus Go

Oculus

But for the most part, this morning’s parade of speakers followed a now-familiar script: It’s going great, guys! Jason Rubin, Oculus’ VP of content, trumpeted the robustness of the Oculus Store (2,000 apps launched in the last year!), the three Emmy awards Oculus experiences have won, and the fact that game studio Respawn (Titanfall) would be making a first-person shooter for the company. Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, ran down a list of minor updates to Spaces, the company’s VR app. (None of them, unfortunately, included “preventing Mark Zuckerberg from inappropriately high-fiving people inside a 360-degree video of post-Maria Puerto Rico during a Facebook Live VR stream,” as the CEO did earlier this week.) Everything, it seems, will be getting better—or at least staying good.

The most interesting news, by far, though, emphasized usability and connection over everything else. Zuckerberg himself revealed Facebook Venues, a VR project that would allow people to gather for live events. Oculus product manager Christina Womack showed off new avatars that will be coming to Oculus; their mouths will move to match a user’s words, their eyes will follow interesting objects. And those avatars will receive ground-up safety tools, allowing users to block people not just in one app, but at a platform level. “For VR to thrive,” she said, “people need to feel safe.”

The most interesting news, by far, though, emphasized usability and connection over everything else.

Oculus and Facebook still operate as distinct entities, each working on its own platform; Nate Mitchell, Oculus’ VP of product, announced a number of updates to the Oculus platform that make it familiar to anyone with a videogame console. A new carousel-style popup dock called Dash will follow users everywhere, allowing them to jump from app to app, accept friend invites, or check notifications without retreating back to the hub of Oculus Home. For its own part, Home is becoming much more customizable: Users can create their own space with furniture, toys, and art; they can visit their friends’ Home; and in a nice (if oddly skeuomorphic) touch, all their games now appear in Home as old-school game cartridges that can be launched from inside the hub.

Those are bells and whistles, though; they may help make VR more frictionless, but they don’t help make VR a viable alternative to conventional computing. However, Mitchell also announced that an upcoming update will let people use their desktop apps inside VR, pinning conventional monitor windows as 3D overlays on any VR experience or environment. “Your workspace is infinite,” Mitchell said. “We’re now on a path to replacing traditional monitors entirely.”

Oculus

Sound boring? It shouldn’t. The more reasons you can give someone not just to try VR, but to use VR, the better. A vision of task-management paradise is just as valid as one in which you and your friends hang out together at a concert from four different states. VR right now is a game of steady progress, not moonshots. And in a year with no earthshaking news, it’s helpful to remind developers (and, by proxy, consumers) about how bright the future is—even if the present feels like those billion users are impossibly far away.