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Can Facebook make virtual reality happen for real this time?

Though tech giants like Facebook and Sony have spent billions of dollars trying to perfect the experience, virtual reality has stayed a niche plaything of hobbyists willing to pay thousands of dollars, often for a clunky VR headset tethered to a powerful gaming computer

By Mike Isaac
Published: Aug 20, 2021

Can Facebook make virtual reality happen for real this time?Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 virtual reality headset in Oakland, Ca., on Sept. 14, 2020. The Quest 2’s headset and controllers include motion sensors to follow your head and hand movements.
Image: Jim Wilson/The New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — For years, the idea that virtual reality would go mainstream has remained exactly that: virtual.

Though tech giants like Facebook and Sony have spent billions of dollars trying to perfect the experience, virtual reality has stayed a niche plaything of hobbyists willing to pay thousands of dollars, often for a clunky VR headset tethered to a powerful gaming computer.

That changed last year in the pandemic. As people lived more of their lives digitally, they started buying more VR headsets. VR hardware sales shot up, led by Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, a headset that was introduced last fall, according to the research firm IDC.

To build on the momentum, Facebook on Thursday introduced a virtual-reality service called Horizon Workrooms. The product, which is free for Quest 2 owners to download, offers a virtual meeting room where people using the headsets can gather as if they are at an in-person work meeting. The participants join with a customizable cartoon avatar of themselves. Interactive virtual white boards line the walls so that people can write and draw things as in a physical conference room.

The product is another step toward what Facebook sees as the ultimate form of social connection for its 3.5 billion users.

“One way or another, I think we’re going to live in a mixed-reality future,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at a media roundtable this week that was conducted in virtual reality using Workrooms.

At the event, the avatars of Zuckerberg and roughly a dozen Facebook employees, reporters and technical support staff assembled in what looked like an open and well-lit virtual conference room. Zuckerberg’s avatar sported a long-sleeve Henley shirt in a dark Facebook blue. (My avatar had a checkered red flannel shirt.) Since Workrooms only shows participants as floating torsos seated around a wooden desk, no one worried about picking out a pair of pants.

Facebook was early to virtual reality. In 2014, it paid $2 billion to buy the VR headset startup Oculus VR. At the time, Zuckerberg promised that the technology would “enable you to experience the impossible.”

The deal jump-started a wave of acquisitions and funding in virtual reality. Investment in VR startups swelled, while companies like HTC and Sony also promised VR headsets for the masses. Microsoft developed the HoloLens, which were hologram-projecting glasses.

But the hype fizzled fast. The first generation of most VR hardware — including Facebook’s Oculus Rift — was expensive. Almost all of the headsets required users to be tethered to a personal computer. There were no obvious “killer apps” to attract people to the devices. Worse still, some people got nauseated after using the products.

The next generation of VR headsets focused on lowering costs. Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard and Google Daydream all asked consumers to strap on goggles and drop in their smartphones to use as VR screens. Those efforts also failed because smartphones were not powerful enough to deliver an immersive virtual reality experience.

“People would always ask me, ‘What VR headset should I buy?’” said Nick Fajt, CEO of Rec Room, a video game popular among virtual reality enthusiasts. “And I’d always respond, ‘just wait.’”

To adjust, some companies began pitching virtual reality not for the masses but for narrower fields. Magic Leap, a startup that promoted itself as the next big thing in augmented reality computing, shifted to selling VR devices to businesses. Microsoft has gone in a similar direction, with a particular focus on military contracts, though it has said it is “absolutely” still working toward a mainstream consumer product.

In 2017, even Zuckerberg acknowledged on an earnings call that Facebook’s bet on Oculus was “taking a bit longer” than he initially thought.

With Workrooms, Facebook wants to take Oculus beyond just gaming. The service is intended to provide a sense of presence with other people, even when they might be sitting halfway across the world.

Zuckerberg sees the project as part of the next internet, one that technologists call “the metaverse.” In Zuckerberg’s telling, the metaverse is a world in which people can communicate via VR or video calling, smartphone or tablet, or through other devices like smart glasses or gadgets that have not been invented yet.

There, people will maintain some sense of continuity between all of the different digital worlds they inhabit. Someone might buy a digital avatar of a shirt in a virtual reality store, for instance, and then log off but continue wearing that shirt to a Zoom meeting.

For now, that vision remains distant. VR adoption can be measured in the tens of millions of users, compared with the billions of owners of smartphones. Facebook has also stumbled, issuing a recall this year on the Quest 2’s foam pad covers after reports of skin irritation from some users. The company has offered new, free silicon padded covers to all Quest 2 owners.

At the Workrooms event with reporters this week, Zuckerberg spoke but had to leave at one point and rejoin the room because his digital avatar’s mouth was not moving when he spoke.

“Technology that gives you this sense of presence is like the holy grail of social experiences, and what I think a company like ours was designed to do over time,” Zuckerberg said, after the glitch was fixed and his avatar’s mouth was moving again. “My hope is that over the coming years, people really start to think of us not primarily as a social media company, but as a ‘metaverse’ company that’s providing a real sense of presence.”

©2019 New York Times News Service