Right now, virtual reality like Facebook’s Oculus Rift lets users feel like they’re walking around with dinosaurs or battling space aliens – magically transporting them to other worlds.
But the company’s grand vision for VR is simultaneously more simple and more profound:
It’s not about giving people the ability to explore fantastical universes that feel real, it’s about letting people who are geographically far apart feel like they can come together in the same place, even if that place is just a mundane virtual coffee shop.
Facebook wants to eventually create VR technology so good that people using it will truly feel like they’re face-to-face.
The use cases for this kind of “Social VR” are limitless.
On stage at Facebook’s F8 developers’ conference Yaser Sheikh of Oculus’ research team described how the team imagines virtual reality being used by people for job interviews or concerts, or a poker night with old college friends who are scattered around the world (where the experience is real enough that you can tell whether or not they’re bluffing).
“Social VR done right has the potential to let us define our tribe not by proximity but personal choice,” he said. Done well, this kind of tech could dissolve boundaries and deemphasize distance. While it may not be as immediately sexy as letting users feel like they’re swimming underwater or flying through space, the power of human connection is enormous.
Sheikh described how sad he is that his children barely know their relatives overseas, but his hope that one day family members will really get to know each other from thousands of miles away through virtual reality.
But after Sheikh set the scene for the giant scale benefits, he described how far from achieving this goal the company is.
Right now, Oculus has an experience where two people using it can feel like they’re playing with a bunch of toys together (watch a demo here). But that only tracks their hands and faces, and to fully understand the context of an interaction, Facebook will need to achieve full-body motion tracking. People need to be able to see the small nuances of motion that exist in the real world. And it needs to do it with technology that’s lightweight and inexpensive.
“We’re quite far from achieving this sort of social presence in VR” he says.
Making virtual reality indistinguishable from the real world is one of the “grand technological challenges in the world today” with an extremely high bar to success, Sheikh says, but creating lifelike virtual reactions is Facebook’s ultimate vision.