Facebook’s Zuckerberg isn’t giving up on Oculus or virtual reality

When you hear about virtual reality, whether or not you’ve ever used it, you probably think of video games that transport you to a far-off space ship, or to an underwater cavern, or some mythical dungeon. Ready Player One, or Black Mirror. Sci-fi things. You know the drill.

VR’s been a work in progress for five years at Facebook, with the technology improving but the masses not diving in. Despite promises and reports of Facebook making augmented reality headsets that blend the real and the virtual, like Microsoft HoloLens and Magic Leap, Mark , Facebook’s co-founder and CEO, says VR is still the way forward, and is more than a doorway to games. He still sees it as Facebook’s bet on the future, not unlike the bet Steve Jobs made at Apple a decade ago on the iPhone, which helped kickstart the mobile revolution.

More importantly, he believes Facebook is the best company to lead the industry when it eventually takes off.

“For me, it’s never been about just technology, it’s been about how can you make technology that’s more natural to people and a lot of that is about interacting with other people,” Zuckerberg said in an exclusive interview two days before he was set to take the stage at the company’s Connect developer conference to tout its VR dreams.

“The thing that we care about is delivering human connection and helping people come together,” Zuckerberg said, leaning towards the theme of presence, and away from a model “that’s more just around, here’s your app, here’s your content, I’m gonna pull it from a store.”

Zuckerberg’s not-so-veiled knock toward competitors with competing headsets and app stores include may sound like typical Silicon Valley infighting. The competitors are many: Google with its Daydream headset project, Valve’s Index headset, Microsoft’s Mixed Reality and even Apple’s nascent VR and AR efforts. But it’s also a sign of how serious Facebook is about backing VR and, soon, AR too.

When Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was buying then-startup Oculus VR in 2014 for more than $2 billion, the tech industry was confused why the social media giant would care about VR. But to Zuckerberg, it was and is a bridge to the AR future, which he believes is the next tectonic shift in tech. He describes it as a move from smartphones in our pockets to VR headsets that embed us in a computer-generated world. Then, eventually, to AR glasses that overlay computer images (dinosaurs, spaceships, fairy forests, avatars of our friends, mapping directions down the street) onto the real world.

“There’s a lot of questions that people have about where’s this all going, why is Facebook doing it,” he said. “We have our social mission people a voice and bringing people together but you can think about what we try to do from a technology perspective as putting people at the center of your experience with technology.”

To get there, Facebook’s released a trio of headsets, all of which put a screen so close to your eyes it can trick you into thinking you’re really in the computer-generated world. There’s the low-end, low-power Oculus Go for $199; the more-capable completely wireless and self-powered Oculus Quest for $399; and the sharpest, most capable headset, the Oculus Rift S, which is also $399 but requires you to own a high-powered computer to power it.

Next, Zuckerberg says, is coming up with new tech that makes it so when you put on an Oculus headset, it really does convince you you’re in that other, digital place.

“What AR and VR do is deliver a sense of ‘presence,’ where you actually feel like you’re there with a person, it’s a really deep connection,” he said. “There’s a bunch of software and experiences that we need to do directly around helping to facilitate people connecting.”

Facebook’s latest innovation is hand tracking, which allows you to interact with images in the Oculus Quest with your hands, instead of the controllers it has now. For example, you could end up poking in the air with your finger, and see it push a button in the virtual world.

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