Facebook talks plans for drones, virtual reality at F8 2015

Facebook's multi-billion acquisition of Oculus VR still has some followers puzzled, but the social network offered some extra foresight into its vision for the subsidiary on Thursday.

michael-abrash-facebook-f8-chief-scientist-oculus-9.jpg
Image: James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Facebook's multi-billion-dollar acquisition of Oculus VR still has some followers puzzled, but the social network offered some extra foresight into its vision for the subsidiary on Thursday.

"Virtual reality -- done right -- truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned," argued Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash on day two of Facebook's annual F8 developer conference, on why everyone should care about virtual reality -- and that goes double for developers.

Facebook's chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer commenced by pinpointing three core technology problems that need to be solved over the next 10 years: scaling services worldwide, developing contextually-aware systems, and building immersive technologies that "teleport" users to a "new place."

Starting with connectivity, Schroepfer stressed Facebook has invested "tremendous amounts" in scaling its own foundational layer and infrastructure globally, most obviously through the construction of its own data centers stretching from Oregon to Sweden.

Open source continues to figure into both Facebook's IT priorities as well as its political rhetoric. Touting power savings as well as its ongoing commitment to the Open Compute Project, Facebook is open-sourcing React Native, a Javascript library for writing native mobile apps.

But for the world's largest social network with more than 1.4 billion monthly active users worldwide, these come across as just baby steps. Schroepfer lamented that anywhere between one and three billion people worldwide do not have Internet access.

Facebook's ambitious goal to spread Internet connectivity to rural and remote areas through its Internet.org project is actually only phase one of a much larger plan, as noted by Schroepfer, who promised more details "later this year." Nevertheless, Schroepfer revealed that a combination of satellites and drones will figure into that game plan.

The work is not done once those Internet beacons are deployed. Schroepfer warned against the perils of what he referred to as "information overload" followed by the lack of a "sense of presence."

This is where virtual reality and artificial intelligence come in.

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What is required to make VR work now -- versus blueprints and attempts over the last two decades -- is that every core component has to a hit a minimum bar of viability to get to that goal of presence and make users feel "truly there," explained Schroepfer.

"We are just getting to that minimum bar of presence this year of what we can get to with virtual reality," Schroepfer insisted, pointing toward lines and lines of people that pop up for VR demos at tech-centric events such as the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show.

But for most Internet users, VR has been most synonymous with gaming and entertainment thus far. Schroepfer acknolwedged the Facebook connection isn't entirely obvious.

Quite simply, Facebook's strength resides in its existing (and ever expanding) user base and brand name as Schroepfer promised Facebook will help developers build the systems and technology in order to get these experiences to users.

The Menlo Park, Calif.-based company stunned the tech world just a year and a day ago with its $2 billion acquisition of VR startup Oculus Rift, which itself had just made a splash a few months prior at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has repeatedly talked about grand ambitions for the VR headset with plans to establish the next iteration of mobile computing, predicting it to be the future of digital communication.

In the same vein as its spinoff apps (i.e. Messenger, Paper, etc.), Facebook has promised it is developing standalone virtual reality apps.

Oculus, which continues to work somewhat autonomously from its Southern California headquarters, has since established its own film studio as well as a partnership with mobile tech titan Samsung.

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Image: James Martin/CNET
Abrash suggested the place to start is getting users to better understand VR, stressing the "reality" aspect.

"Real is simply electrical signals interpreted by the brain," Abrash quipped while referencing the sci-fi film The Matrix and the recent Internet meme and debate over visual interpretation that has simply become known as "The Dress."

In providing a very technical breakdown of how the brain interprets reality, Abrash's lecture demonstrated Facebook's need for a societal mind shift, so to speak, about VR's place and potential beyond just in-game experiences and fighter pilot simulations.

Nevertheless, Abrash went so far as to predict that VR technology will evolve to provide not only any experience possible in the real world, but any experience that is possible having at all. VR will permeate daily life so much that people will want to pick up their coffee cups with VR headsets still on, he suggested.

Although Abrash didn't provide a specific ship date, Abrash said Oculus VR headsets will start shipping "in quantity before long."

Abrash concluded with a laugh, "Sooner or later, you will want to be a part of it. I'm hoping it's sooner."

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