The Future of VR and Facebook Reality Labs
May 26, 2021
Virtual Reality is classified as computer-generated simulations of three-dimensional images or environments — images and environments which can be interacted with.
The VR industry as a whole happens to be growing and being applied at a rapid pace. The global VR market size is projected to increase from around 5 billion U.S. dollars (in 2021) to more than 12 billion U.S. dollars (by 2024).
The overall aim of VR technology is to set the table for a consumer to engage with VR technology and be immersed in a convincingly real artificial world. VR systems generally come with special electronic equipment — usually a helmet or goggles with a screen equipped inside and sometimes with sensor-fitted gloves.
VR: The Early Days
VR history goes back a little further than many might think. Technologists have been working on developing simulated environments for decades. The earliest VR milestone was the Sensorama (1956), developed by Morton Heilig, who had a background in motion pictures. Wanting to create an experience for viewers where they felt like they were actually in the movie, Heilig created a machine which created an experience that simulated a real city environment.
Viewers/users could ride through this city on a motorcycle, completely virtually. Multisensory stimulation would allow users to see the city road, hear the motorcycle engine, feel various vibrations, and even smell motor exhaust in this simulated world.
Heilig would also develop and patent a head-mounted display device, which was called the Telesphere Mask (1960). Obviously, future inventors would start to build upon Heilig’s foundational work — and VR masks/headsets are now commonplace as a result.
Oculus Rift Ups the Ante
Then came Oculus Rift, which is a line of virtual reality headsets that was developed and made by Oculus VR (which is a division of Facebook Inc.). This technology was released to the public on March 28, 2016. Oculus Rift headsets were first made available in 20 countries — at a starting price of $599 in US dollars.
In their early days, Oculus Rift raised 2.5 million dollars on Kickstarter in order to start making their products — this was in 2012. Facebook would end up purchasing Oculus Rift for $2 billion dollars two years later.
VR in the 80s and 90s
VR wasn’t in the best spot in the 80s and 90s — dozens of companies and organizations had tried to turn VR headsets into some semblance of viable commercial success, but all of them ended up failing… and failing hard. Many VR systems were far too expensive for the average person to even consider purchasing. Most VR systems didn’t work properly or create a convincing experience, either.
Some VR systems were even far too ahead of their time. Components were too expensive and difficult to source and most home version computers were not powerful enough to help create a truly immersive experience.
A Brief History of Oculus Rift
The earliest iterations of Oculus Rift were meant to be used by developers and early VR adopters in order to help pioneers get their first experiences with virtual reality. These bulkier headsets were not exactly meant to sit on store shelves, but the original intent was to provide a palate cleanser for old VR experiences as well as get people to start building things in VR in order to utilize and expand the technology.
Although the original prototypes and early models were still effective, there was missing technology that we consider commonplace today. Initial headsets did not have positional tracking, which is essential in order to track movement. Early headsets were said to cause motion sickness due to poor resolution, no positional tracking, etc.
Subsequent Oculus Rift headsets would utilize new technology, powered by OLED displays instead of LCD displays, which offered brighter screen viewing and far less motion blur. They also cut delay in half and began using black frames to fool the brain into thinking it sees a smooth-moving image.
One thing that Oculus Rift has always had going for it was the way people perceived the company. People have been rooting for this underdog since it was first conceived. The Oculus Rift story was one of those tech world fairy tales about brilliant whiz-kids turning their garage project into an actual company making millions.
Facebook Gets Involved
The fact that Oculus Rift originally launched on Kickstarter is a crucial decision/detail — Oculus Rift was able to glean a sort of “homegrown” street cred that mainstream organizations simply cannot emulate. There was something undeniably “indie” about Oculus Rift, which is perhaps part of why they were able to easily raise around $100 million from shrewd venture capitalists.
This street cred was understandably under fire when Oculus Rift was acquired by Facebook. Backlash began to commence from Oculus Rift’s biggest and loyal fans. Many fans cancelled their DK2 orders and even began to predict that Oculus Rift would go under in no time flat. Oculus Rift assured their customers and fans that they would remain independent from Facebook.
Since then, Oculus Rift has been very careful to ensure that its products remain autonomous from Facebook. There is no Facebook messaging or branding associated with Oculus Rift or any of its products… and probably rightfully so. Most people who are still onboard with Oculus Rift have accepted their involvement with Facebook and adopt a “throw money at it but leave it alone,” mentality.
Since the early days of Oculus Rift VR hardware has come a long way and virtual reality is being utilized in many different industries — not simply for video gaming, although obviously VR has some excellent synergy with gaming in all forms. VR tooling and technology became more versatile and developers seemed to have unlocked secrets about what makes a good VR experience and video game. The fact that Oculus Rift was first launched with an Xbox controller seems like a long time ago and possibly even a world away by now.
How Facebook Helps Oculus Rift
Facebook has actually helped Oculus Rift in the innovation department. VR evolution has been exceptionally fast as shown with Facebook’s headset, the Oculus Go, which arrived to consumers in 2018. Oculus Go would be the affordable entrypoint into VR for the average consumer, not to mention represented the company’s first all-in-one (AIO) device. This would set the groundwork for future Oculus endeavors.
Next would come the Oculus Quest and Oculus Rift S — which were both launched in May of 2019. These headsets heralded a new era in which 6 degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) would then become the baseline. These products had an extremely short lifespan — Oculus Go’s 3DoF control was just a little too simplistic for consumers, which resulted in the technology being discontinued as of late 2020. Oculus Quest was superseded in 17 months (succeeded by Oculus Quest 2). Rift S will end up being discontinued very soon as well.
Do not be discouraged by short lifecycle trends, which are going to continue as Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) continues “working on the next few generations of virtual reality and what Quest 3 and 4 are gonna look like,” says Facebook head honcho Mark Zuckerberg.
VR: What Now?
VR systems are still trying to deliver a fully immersive experience. While VR is being used by advertisers, the medical industry, various tech sectors, the military, and more, it will continue to evolve and develop, ultimately creating a fully convincing experience that incorporates sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell.
VR technology has also shown how beneficial and useful it can be during the COVID-19 pandemic, where VR technology was used to show houses, automobiles, and other products, give virtual tours of spaces, and more. Even websites are starting to incorporate VR and AR technology in order to help connect audiences with companies and products in a more effective and engaging way.
Facebook Reality Labs’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash went on record saying that, “We are at the very beginning. All this innovation, all this invention still has to happen with VR. People should realize that we’ve come a long way and we’ve done a great job—but this road stretches out for the rest of their lifetimes.”
VR technologies include face tracking, hand tracking, eye tracking, not to mention incorporating brain-computer interfaces (BCI) and AI-powered interfaces — all of which have an important part to play. The extent and reach of these technologies and their uses and applications remains to be seen.