Mark Zuckerberg does not mess around.
Standing onstage on Wednesday to open Facebook’s fourth-annual Oculus Connect developers conference, Zuck, wearing his trademark gray T-shirt and jeans, threw down a very lofty goal: “We want to get a billion people in” virtual reality.
Within minutes, he’d announced devices that he hopes might help him reach that mark: Oculus’s first standalone VR headset, the Oculus Go, a $199 device that, unlike any on the market, requires being tied to neither a smartphone nor a PC; Not long after, Zuckerberg also revealed the latest progress on Oculus’s even more ambitious future product, a high-end standalone VR headset code-named Santa Cruz. Despite the audience’s hunger for news of those devices, it was his billion VR users statement that resonated.
Even Michael Abrash, Oculus’s chief scientist, said on the San Jose, California, stage a bit later in the keynote presentation that he’d been taken by surprise by the announcement of the goal. Believe Abrash or not, it’s still a remarkable step–the CEO of one of the biggest tech companies in the world, owner of one of the most important VR companies in the world, saying that he planned on having a billion users for a consumer technology that currently still is very much at a slow-growth, early-adopter stage, in spite of some analysts’ predictions that it will be a $38 billion technology by 2026.
Zuck, of course, has reached the billion-user level before–with Messenger, with WhatsApp, and of course, with its core Facebook service. So he has some credibility in aiming for nine digits.
“It’s a great way to let the [VR] community know, really, what he’s after, and also I think it’s a great way to motivate employees, like, here’s the goal, here’s the boss, and here’s the goal,” said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner. “I think what he’s saying is this: I already did a billion users multiple times before, trust me. I’m going to do it again.”
But though Facebook owns Oculus, Zuckerberg isn’t the head of the VR division. That job belongs to 40-year-old Hugo Barra, long at Google, and then a vice president at Xiaomi who was responsible for launching a number of the Chinese company’s phones.
Despite years in the consumer electronics industry, though, Barra hasn’t worked in VR for decades. Still, he’s in charge of delivering on Zuck’s promise.
“I think it’s just awesome to have an ambitious, aspirational goal like that,” Barra tells Fast Company with the slightest hint of an accent from his native Brazil. “VR is one of those things that [Facebook has] in our 10-year roadmap as a company, so it’s just helpful to set the tone, and it’s awesome that Mark is doing that.”
This is Barra’s first Oculus Connect, and it’s the first time since becoming vice president of VR for Facebook last April that he’s giving extensive interviews. Obviously a cheerleader for Oculus, and for Facebook, he has no illusions that reaching a billion users for a nascent consumer technology is something that’s going to happen overnight. While lower-end–read: cheaper–headsets from Sony and Samsung have sold millions of units, Oculus’s own Rift has had relatively slow sales, and the industry itself has yet to go mainstream. After a year or so of relentless hype throughout tech media, VR is going through a typical backlash stage right now, with many wondering if the technology will ever achieve the kind of hockey-stick growth of smartphones.
Facebook, like others, has a good sense of some of the things that are required for VR to take off, chief among them high-quality, inexpensive devices, and more and better content.
The company clearly thinks the announcement of the Oculus Go, at $199, and not requiring an expensive smartphone, as well as the arrival in developers hands within a year of Santa Cruz, is a good start. Add to that a library of more than 2,000 titles for the Gear VR and Rift platforms, and Oculus believes it’s well on the way to mainstream adoption.
To be sure, it’s also aware that there’s much work to be done. For example, Oculus Research is working on a number of approaches to one of the key problems VR headsets present–that because lenses focus at a fixed distance, it can cause visual fatigue and discomfort to wear one for too long. Already, Abrash’s research division is conducting trials on what he calls varifocal lenses, which could lessen that discomfort and make it possible to wear a VR headset all day.
For his part, Barra has gone from zero to a billion before, with Google’s Android platform and other mobile devices and apps. VR is different. “Honestly,” he says, “none of those things came even close to the level of richness and complexity of the technologies that we’re working on with VR.”
Building top-tier VR means having teams that are expert at things like computer vision, industrial design, user interfaces, comfort, mechanical and electrical design, and more. You even have to figure out how to make a great VR video player because, he explains, “building a video player that is amazing [in a VR headset] is 10 times harder than building a video player [on other devices] because your eye just picks up every small detail.”
And while he’s only worked in VR for half a year, Barra sounds like someone who’s been doing it a lot longer. That’s thanks to countless hours of long conversations with far more experienced people throughout Oculus.
“The learning curve has been steeper than anything I’ve ever seen,” he says, “like learning about computer vision, and really understanding what it means to build a fully portable, self-contained tracking system with six degrees of freedom that has to see both the controllers…and the environment to track the headset…Just the implications of all that, and understanding why certain things can be done, why certain things cannot be done, or what it’ll take to get there.”
The task, though, is seductive. “I’m excited,” Barra says, “because I’ve had chance in a previous life to see what it’s like to take a new platform from zero to a billion…and having the chance to do that, hopefully, again, is just amazing.”
When Zuckerberg talks about the future, he silos things into roadmaps–technological and product goals he expects to be achieved in three, five, or ten years. VR and augmented reality fall into the latter category.
So while Oculus already has released the Rift and the operating system powering Samsung’s Gear VR, it’s still got a long way to go. That, of course, is where Oculus Go and Santa Cruz come into play. But, really, that’s only the beginning.
Barra understands that there’s years of work ahead. As a company that wants its products to be at the center of billions of users’ lives, it’s incumbent on Oculus to find ways to put VR and eventually AR everywhere.
“What we showed on stage today is a really good glimpse…of where we want to take VR over the next few years,” he says. “As in, what is VR good for, the utility of VR, and how it can play a significant role in our lives, our working lives, our personal lives, and so on.”
Already, of course, VR is a gaming platform. And increasingly, it’s used for education, travel, art, and storytelling. There’s much more, though–making it possible to work in VR, to meet and play with our friends there, answering emails, real productivity. And, of course, tools that don’t even exist yet because they weren’t built for VR.
The challenge, Barra understands, is finding ways to make VR the platform of choice for all of that. “How do you make it such that someone is not only happy to work in VR for a couple of hours,” he says, “but actually prefers that over anything else?”
Barra’s astute enough to know what he doesn’t know, and that even experts like Abrash may not have the answers either. He’s also aware he’s in charge of an organization with a mandate, and the resources, to find those answers.
While Oculus itself is building the platform, it relies on developers to create the content that will actually bring in the users. And as is the case with any new consumer technology, that presents a chicken-and-egg dynamic: Users need content; content developers need users. Why should either invest their resources without a critical mass available to them?
At Oculus Connect this week, there are probably more than 2,000 developers eager to learn how to jump right in and disrupt the chicken-and-egg problem. That’s exciting to someone like Barra, who points passionately to work done by the folks at Ready at Dawn, who made the hit Rift games Lone Echo and Echo Arena, solving along the way a problem that many others have simply ignored.
That problem is known as locomotion, or moving around in a VR environment. In most other games, if you want to get from point A to point B, you point your controller, click, and teleport. But Ready at Dawn wasn’t satisfied with that approach. Instead, they made it possible for people to move in space without teleporting. “They challenged everything there was to challenge in VR,” Barra says, “and the result was, okay, now we have a new standard of what it means to do locomotion in VR.”
Now, he continues, the next developer can build on top of what Ready at Dawn created, and the industry can move on to solving the next problem.
Oculus, of course, is hardly the only VR platform company seeking these answers. Google, Microsoft, and HTC are also major players in VR. For years, though, the refrain in the industry has been one of rising tides lifts all boats, meaning that it’s good for Oculus if Google or Microsoft advances the state of the art, inspiring developers and together, building consumer confidence in the technology. And vice versa.
It’s still the industry’s early days, the very end of the first generation of consumer VR. With the imminent release of Oculus Go, and Google’s promise that it will have its own stand-alone system out by year’s end, we’re about to enter the second generation. So the question is, do these major players still see each other as friendly competitors, or have we entered into a more cut-throat era?
Barra suggests he does appreciate the work being done by other companies, but he believes it’s time for real competition.
“I think [VR is] a strong category, and there’s really heavy investments and great experiences and products coming out of it,” he says of the idea of a truly competitive VR industry. “I think we’re there.”