Facebook is no stranger to big bets. Some of them have paid of spectacularly, like the paltry billion it shelled out for Instagram, which is now as hot (or hotter) a tech company than the mothership brand Facebook itself (and worth north of $100b on its own by some estimates). Other of those acquisitions are returning more mixed reviews, like the much larger price (~$19b) paid for messaging platform WhatsApp (not that the acquisition and brand synergy hasn’t been successful, but rather that the high price makes it a lot harder to declare it an unmitigated success). What about their VR escapades?
But one company firmly in that gray zone between runaway success and complete flop is Oculus, and it’s trying to revolutionize the human/computer interface; so they can be forgiven if they haven’t seen unfettered business success following every new product announcement. But with its newest release, announced this week, it’s aiming to make the target audience leap from bleeding-edge early adopters to mainstream interface product.
Oculus has announced its new headset, the Oculus Quest: a $399 standalone virtual reality headset that’s launching in the spring of 2019. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg says that “with Oculus Quest, we will complete our first generation of Oculus products.” Zuckerberg also says that the new Oculus Quest combines “the key attributes of the ideal VR system”; namely, a wireless design, virtual hand controllers, and full positional tracking. “If we can bring these three qualities together in one product, we think that will be the foundation of a new generation of VR.”
According to Wired, “It’s a showcase for potentially game-changing virtual reality technology, and part of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s lofty goal to get 1 billion people using VR, as he expressed during the event’s keynote address.”
What makes Quest so special, though, is that it’s combining the power and precision of a wired VR headset with the portability of a standalone product. Furthermore, Facebook boasts this Oculus can achieve 6DoF (six degrees of freedom), meaning it can track your head positionally, not just rotationally. Usually to do this, VR systems set up cameras/trackers in the physical surrounding environment to give feedback to the wired headset. But this product has the sensors built into the headset… and no need for wires back to a mothership.
From the same Wired article: ”
The company is calling this technology Insight. The four wide-angle sensors on the headset look for edges, corners, and distinct features in the room around you, and then build a three-dimensional map of the environment. [Facebook VR exec Hugo] Barra said the headset is calculating an estimate of your head position “every millisecond,” and can even deliver precise tracking in larger than room-scale areas. As an example, the company set up a 4,000 square-foot “arena” at Oculus Connect, where people can use Quest headsets to play a free-roaming version of the Wild West shooter Dead and Buried.
Basically, Oculus is taking a technology that usually requires a bunch of sensors at multiple touch points around a room, and recreating the same experience with just the four sensors on your head, using machine learning and computer vision.
Sure, that technology sounds great and everything, but is VR ever going to go mainstream?
As you can imagine, it’s insanely difficult to predict which transformational technologies land and which ones are near misses. But, truly immersive digital environments have been the promised land of video games for decades (that’s not the only sphere VR could shine in, but it’s been on that particular radar most prominently). Sporting events with the atmosphere and visceral response, without the weather, prices or traffic. I mean, the market demand is there, but only if the technology clears the price/feature hurdle. The system has to be freestanding, comfortable to wear, truly immersive and within the range of affordability.
I don’t know if Quest is that silver bullet just yet, but Facebook is going all in on the platform, so you’d be wise to pay attention to how it all shakes out…