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The Virtual Reality Questions That Facebook’s F8 Conference Left Unanswered

Facebook’s F8 conference only scratched the surface of the giant topic of virtual reality. Firstborn president Dan LaCivita picks up where F8 left off on what’s required for VR to move to the next level.

The Virtual Reality Questions That Facebook’s F8 Conference Left Unanswered
[Photo: Flickr user NYC Media Lab]

If you tuned in to Facebook’s F8 developer conference livestream on Thursday thinking you would finally see the social platform’s grand plans for virtual reality, then you likely closed your browser window an hour later with only a desire to see if The Matrix is currently streaming on Netflix.

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That’s because there were no big announcements–the latest Oculus VR hardware prototype, Crescent Bay, wasn’t even mentioned until minute 52 of the 60-minute keynote. And when it was, it was only touted as being “almost there.”

Instead, the live and livestream audiences were treated to an hour of amazing VR geekery–everything from numerous (numerous!) references to The Matrix, to a crash course in the neurology of perception, to interactive demonstrations that showed how our brain inaccurately computes input from our senses. It was a truly fascinating exploration of VR, and it allowed Facebook to deliver a rallying cry for developers to create bigger and better content for use on the “coming soon” Oculus VR consumer product.

Still from the 2015 F8 Day 2 keynote; one of the numerous Matrix references

But when it was announced that the keynote would focus on virtual reality, the watching world got excited. There are many of us who have been dabbling in and developing VR content since Oculus’s first prototype shipped in early 2013. And there are many more of us—consumer brands, film companies, marketers—who are already waist-deep in VR and are waiting to see how the space will evolve so we know whether to start treading water or keep paddling out. Personally, I’m headed out to sea, but here are some of the dots that need to be connected by Facebook, Oculus VR, and other hardware and software companies in order to continue building the need and want for VR.

Still from the 2015 F8 Day 1 keynote

The Viability Of VR As A Nonsolo Experience

VR skeptics love to paint this particular picture of the future: “Are we just all going to be sitting in a room together wearing giant headsets?” Hopefully not. Facebook’s Chief Technology Officer Mike Schroepfer closed his part of the keynote by painting a different picture: all of his relatives “teleporting” to see his daughter ride her bike sans training wheels in real time. This is the glimpse of what Facebook wants for the future: the ability to create more shared moments through virtual reality.

But we see it going beyond just connecting far-off people to watch the same real-life event. What if they could all be a part of it? A high school history class wants to “virtually” learn more about the Battle of Appomattox Court House, so they divide up between Union and Confederate forces and head onto the field. They each become a soldier, or even General Robert E. Lee, as they attack opposing forces and, in Lee’s case, surrender.

Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash; still from the 2015 F8 Day 2 keynote

Meaningful User Involvement During VR Experiences

Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash acknowledged the need for user involvement at the F8 keynote. Leap Motion is even making strides toward the technology. But, to be clear, it can’t just be the act of seeing your hands or your feet when you’re in a VR experience. And it also can’t be merely the ability to poke at virtual objects inside the virtual worlds. Passive experiences are going to wear off quickly, so how can we enable consumers to play active and interactive roles within these VR worlds?

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Our developers say they want more options to immerse viewers in the world they’re creating—differentiating VR from television or IMAX, and aligning it more with actual reality. Or, even taking it beyond reality; one of our creatives would love the ability to measure a user’s mental state and adjust the experience accordingly.

Photo: Flickr user Maurizio Pesce

Reaching A Broader Audience With VR

Currently, the majority of virtual reality experiences go down at live events: movie premieres, concerts, sporting events, tech conferences. It’s a necessary press tour for virtual reality itself—the everyday guy or gal has no idea how to fathom the concept of virtual reality, so demos are crucial. But asking that guy or gal to eventually purchase personal hardware is a different necessity for the viability of VR. And if Facebook really wants VR to connect us for more shared moments, then we all actually need to be connected. So, how do we ask consumers to pull out their wallets (or digital wallets) and cough up the dough needed for VR?

Part of the responsibility lies with hardware providers and their ability to intertwine themselves with existing technology, like Samsung has done with its Gear VR headset powered by the Galaxy Note 4 smartphone. Responsibility also lies with tech connectors like Facebook—will they be able to integrate VR into our everyday world in a way that isn’t polarizing or off-putting? (Facebook’s just-announced integration of 360-degree video in News Feed is a promising first step.) And finally, responsibility is shared by my fellow content creators. We have to conceptualize and develop experiences that are high-quality, immersive, and engaging. Because when VR is finally built, the people won’t come if there is nothing amazing to see.

Still from the 2015 F8 Day 2 keynote; this is one of the numerous Matrix references

F8 might have been devoid of any major VR announcements or releases, but that doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm for the future of virtual experiences. Think of the keynote, and this wish list, as a rallying cry for the future of VR. In Matrix-speak, let’s take the red pill and see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Dan LaCivita is president of Firstborn, a digital creative agency that develops virtual experiences for brands.