The empathy injection – how Facebook is changing communication with VR and AR
Facebook Australia’s head of technology Jason Juma-Ross says the future of VR-enabled social networking may be unlike anything we’ve yet imagined.
In 2014 Facebook acquired a quickly growing virtual reality (VR) company, which was gaining popularity as one of the Kickstarter platform’s most promising projects. At the time, critics accused Mark Zuckerberg of being a bored billionaire in need of new toys. Years later, Facebook Australia’s head of technology, entertainment and connectivity, Jason Juma-Ross, tells us that the social media giant had always seen Oculus and VR as the next mode of communication and connection.
Just as internet communication has graduated from text to images to video, Juma-Ross says VR will come next: “One of the most empathetic and immediate ways that you can communicate with somebody is by having them be in your world.”
In early May, Oculus released the Oculus Go in Australia, promising to bring together the immersive quality from its flagship Rift model and the convenience of supplementary mobile-powered VR experiences such as Samsung Gear and Google Cardboard.
Beyond VR, Facebook’s technology team has been obsessed with blurring the lines between fiction and reality over the past year. The company introduced a series of augmented reality (AR) features to both its Facebook and Instagram platforms, as well as an open source ‘AR Studio’ for developers to create 3D objects to place in the real world.
Marketing catches up with Juma-Ross, a self-described ‘VR nerd’, to find out more about Facebook’s technological curiosities, where the platform’s intentions point for VR, 3D photos and LEGO.
Marketing: Where did the Oculus Go concept come from?
Jason Juma-Ross: VR has been around for a long time. I did my first work in VR back in the late ’90s and early 2000s on a platform called Blender, which was an open source platform built in Python – now it’s a big 3D modelling platform, one of the two that people generally use in these environments.
So it has been around for a while, but it has really started to crystallise – in terms of consumer use cases – over the last couple of years. If you wind the clock back three or four years, there were only two types of devices in the marketplace.
There were the high-end devices like Oculus Rift, which give people a very powerful and high resolution experience, with high levels of computing and optics. The downside of that is the total cost of ownership is quite high, because you have to have a high spec PC with a quality GPU (graphics processing unit) to be able to drive the experience. Also, you’re wired to that thing. You can’t move around in free space, you can’t pick it up and take it with you. So there were certain limitations on that experience, even though it’s a very powerful and immersive experience when you’re in it.
At the other end of the spectrum were these headsets that you would put your mobile phone into – and we did a lot of work with some key partners like Samsung in building platforms such a Gear VR, which was a great product. We found that there were limitations to those too, the obvious things that you would expect. For example, you had to put a phone into the headset when you wanted to use it, and that might have impacts on your battery life for the rest of the day or someone might call you while you’re in VR – and what happens then?
The reaction that we got back from consumers was super positive, but we saw that there was this need for a stand-alone device, a dedicated device. Consumers were saying, ‘We want something that’s comfortable, something that’s easy to carry around and has the right level of quality so we don’t have to wire it up to something else.’ Something fully independent and at a low enough price point. Because with those phone-based units, unless you had a premium smartphone around $1000, you couldn’t get access to the experience. So we wanted to build something that anyone could access, no matter what phone they were on.
Hence the Oculus Go. We’ve been working on these for a couple of years, but the critical thing about this was that its completely stand-alone, it has its own on-board storage compute, connectivity and everything else. There was this article that suggested that the Oculus Go was going to be the iPhone of VR. You know, I would love that to be true, but only time will tell.
We do think that this stand-alone format is going to be a real turning point, so I’m super excited that we are here in this point in time, where we are suddenly going to make this sort of technology accessible to more people than ever before.
Can you describe the Oculus Go experience a little?
It’s a really interesting experience. There are games on it, there are experiential type things, you can get on a roller-coaster and go around a theme park and you can do these educational experiences, including one involving the International Space Station where you can go in and take a trip.
There are lots of emerging genres on these things that are not first-person shooters, and it’s quite interesting to see the content taking different paths and people starting to develop whole new story arcs. If you look at the work that CNN and the BBC are doing as media organisations in this space, they’re really starting to experiment and learn with different formats. What kind of story arcs work? Do you need a person to guide you through the scene? What’s the role of flat media within that 3D environment and overlays?
It’s super exciting to see all of the partners in the industry start to really think through this ahead of much broader adoption, to start developing unique experiences for the format.
Is social networking still the focus for Oculus? Do you see VR becoming a dominant part of connecting online?
We think that people are the killer app for pretty much any technology, so we have a very human-centric view of the world. I’m not sure if it’s going to be social networking as it is conceived today, but we see some really interesting things as this develops.
One is the ability for you to be in the experience as yourself with the people that you care about. In order to do that you have to have a presence – you could call that a body or an avatar or something that is just recognisably ‘you’. So we’re doing a lot of work right now to figure out what’s the right kind of body or avatar that you should have in the environment and how you interact with people.
An interesting case of that is called Oculus Venues. We just introduced the ability for you to walk into a stadium and watch – with a whole series of other people from all around the world – a live sporting event, a concert or a comedy festival etc. We launched this concept a few weeks ago with a live concert from Vance Joy in Colorado, streaming around the world live to people who have these headsets.
The amazing thing about it was that you could walk into this concert, go sit down, have a conversation with someone in Canada (or wherever they were) and the audio of your conversation would get sent up to the cloud, remixed on the server and then sent back down to just you and me – because you don’t want to hear the other 250 people that are in your part of the stadium.
The high point of that, for me anyway, was when you looked around and saw all of these people around you – in their avatars – singing along to Vance Joy; and you kind of knew that we were all from different places from around the world, but it just worked.
When you say, ‘How does social networking work in this?’ I think there is a strong social component to VR that we are only just starting to imagine.
The other one is games. How do people play games that are social? Sure, there’s been a social layer associated with games over the last few years, but when you think about what you do in social contexts – like when you get together with your family for Christmas – you don’t play first-person shooters, you play charades or a tabletop game, or something like that. Something that is interesting enough to engage you, but doesn’t require all of your attention.
We’ve been doing some work recently with Hasbro to build a series of games that people can play in these environments. The first one we released a few weeks ago was Boggle and we’re working now on Trivial Pursuit. We’re finding that people are getting together with their friends and their families to play these games, even though they are connected in different places around the world.
With VR becoming so much cheaper and more accessible, how can marketers prepare for VR becoming commonplace?
There are probably two ways of looking at this. One is through VR and the other is through augmented reality (AR). One of the things that we are doing on the Oculus Go, along with the background machine learning and computer vision capabilities, is bringing those onto a mobile phone also.
So, for example, some of the intelligence around creating content in a VR environment is that what makes it feel real and three-dimensional to you is what we call ‘head parallax’ – which is when you move your head in a scene and you see a little bit of what’s behind the frame.
We’re just about to bring something into News Feed that we call 3D Photos. Essentially you’ll take a photo of something on your standard mobile phone and we use computer vision technology to extrapolate just a little bit of the background around the things that are in the foreground. So, as it rolls through News Feed, it feels three-dimensional, which is a great way to make things pop. We’ve also done the same thing with physical objects, so you can put a three-dimensional model that you’ve created in a piece of 3D software into a post on a mobile phone.
There are some really good examples of this. LEGO does some really great stuff putting 3D models into these environments. Kia did something in the US for its new Stinger, which is one of its sports cars, where you can walk outside and hold up your phone and drop the car into your driveway to see what it would look like.
A lot of the technology that we are working on around the whole ecosystem of VR is something that is going to be deployed or augmented in a VR environment to the 1.5 billion people that have access to the Facebook Camera and the Augmented Reality Suite on a mobile phone. So if you are a marketer today, we would encourage you to think, ‘How do I do that? How do I play in that space? How do I start thinking about creating experiences that are really interesting to people in that environment?’
It is now surprisingly easy as well. We have a software called AR Studio that is available for anyone to use, and over the last few months we have a released a whole series of 3D image libraries and sounds for people to plug into that. We’ve made the thing a lot more ‘drag-and-drop’, so it’s a lot easier and you don’t have to hard-code java-script – so we’re trying to make all of these tools much more accessible for the creators that exist in marketing ecosystems, as well as just the developers in the engineering community.
Why has Facebook decided to commit so heavily to integrating AR into its platforms?
There is an interesting fusion right now in the Stories format, where it takes up the whole screen and you can augment it with your own GIFs, stickers, illustrations and potentially augmented reality. It’s sort of ephemeral and you can share it. So there’s an interesting collision of two different streams around that, making it really compelling and interesting.
Our take on it is: we want as many people as possible to have access to this. We work really hard for lots of people to have access, irrespective of what kind of mobile phone they have.
Are AR and VR going to remain novelty technologies? Or will they travel to the other end of the spectrum and become technologies on which we are dependent?
It’s something that will pass the novelty stage pretty quickly, arguably I think it already has. With the price point and accessibility of devices such as the Oculus Go, there’s going to be a broader consumer adoption of VR all around the world. There’s going to be a lot of adoption all around the world, which will just drive the ecosystem forward.
Also, the tools that are coming out in the AR environment, we’re expecting to see a lot more adoption of that and a lot more commercial use cases as we open up that platform. Right now things like the Stories are in a closed beta, but we are hoping to open that up to more people.
What would you like to see more of in this space?
What I would like to see more of is ways of getting into that camera experience from the other places. Stories is one area where that can happen quite seamlessly, but we are working through how people can make their way into those experiences from elsewhere within the Facebook family of apps and services.
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Image credit:Billetto Editorial