Facebook wants to blur lines between reality and virtual reality

oculus rift headset

A man uses the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset at the 2014 Electronic Entertainment Expo, known as E3.

Credit: Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters

Looking beyond VR games to changing the way life is experienced

Facebook doesn't want to simply build a virtual reality game where users put on a headset and pretend they're flying a jet or commanding a tank.

Facebook engineers and scientists say they can blur the lines between virtual reality (VR) and reality.

During today's keynote on the second day of the social network's annual F8 developers conference, the company made it clear it is focusing on three things.

First, Facebook wants to connect everyone on the planet to the Internet, using drones and satellites.

Second, the company is working with artificial intelligence technology to help people cull through the massive clutter of information on the Internet to find the images and data that are truly useful to them.

And third, Facebook wants to build an immersive technology that "teleports" users to a new place and gives them new experiences with people they care about.

This third part – what might seem like something of a moonshot to a lot of people – is where virtual reality comes into play.

About a year ago, Facebook bought Oculus, a company that makes virtual reality headsets. This technology, in the hands of the largest social network in the world, is aimed at changing the way people not only play games, but share information and experiences on Faceook.

According to Michael Abrash, chief scientist of Oculus, they're not that far away from making it happen.

The VR games today are more immersive than their predecessors, and can partially fool the brain into thinking the user is actually in a fighter jet or other situation. If the user comes too close to the edge of a precipice, for instance, many reach out to grab a bar for balance, but the bar is only in the virtual reality game.

In such cases, the brain is beginning to believe the user is in the game.

Abrash said Oculus hopes to release a "good consumer product," possibly in a year or two.

The company wants to study how the brain, and the body's sensors, perceive the world around it. Oculus also needs to further develop the technology that will convince the brain that the game is "real."

"How do you define real?" Abrash asked the F8 audience. "If it's what you can feel, smell and taste and see, then real is just electrical signals that you can interpret in your brain. That's why you are going to care a lot about VR sooner or later."

Abrash said our conscious minds never interact with the real world. People interact with sensors in their eyes, ears, skin, tongues and noses. That, he said, is a very small subset of the real world.

Those senses are what Abrash wants to use in VR experience.

"An experience is what your mind infers from the data it receives," he said. "VR done right truly is reality as far as the observer is concerned."

"I've played and gotten hooked on some of these games," said Rob Enderle, an analyst with the Enderle Group. "They are really much more like being in the middle of the action and are clearly far more immersive. It should revolutionize simulation and it could turn Facebook into more of a virtual meeting place between people and make it far more social than it is today."

Brian Blau, an analyst with research firm Gartner, said Facebook is on the right track to not only work on the technology behind virtual reality but also on how the human mind perceives what is happening around it.

"Without this understanding, there is a real risk that the virtual reality experiences they enable just won't be good enough to keep users engaged past it being a novelty," Blau said. "It could be years or decades before these realistic virtual reality experiences can be made. In the beginning, virtual reality skiing will be really compelling, but in future years it will move beyond compelling and become believable."

Facebook will likely first use Oculus-based virtual reality in gaming and then move it into the core of the social network, enabling users to set up their own experiences or take part in their friends' virtual experiences.

To some, this talk about blurring the lines between reality and virtual reality is sounding too good to be true.

"It's like they've taken the script of a science-fiction flick and made it into a business model," said Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst. "It's starting to sound like Star Trek from the '60s. We'll just have to wait and see how much of it becomes reality. There's no way to tell at this early stage, but it shows that they're thinking anyway."

Abrash said Oculus and Facebook are working toward a goal where virtual reality replaces, rather than augments, the real world. He said he envisions the companies creating new realities.

"Virtual reality is going to be the next big thing," Abrash said. "It's more than just another platform, but it can create the whole range of human experience. It will be a long time before that can be fulfilled, but the work for that is well under way. Virtual reality has the potential to change almost everything about the way we live."

Gartner's Blau agreed that virtual reality technology could have a significant impact on the way people play and communicate. It also could squeeze those lines between what's real and what isn't, but that won't come for a while.

"Over time, that line will become even more blurry between reality and virtual reality," Blau said. "People won't forget what's real and what isn't, but… it's very possible, in the farther future, that the line between real and virtual will become invisible."

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