Zuckerberg plays up VR's emotional side

Business uses seem far off; 'Not an overnight sensation,' one analyst says

zuckerberg f8 2015

BARCELONA - Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called virtual reality "the next platform" during a nine-minute presentation on Sunday, during which each attendee was given a new $99 Samsung Gear VR headset.

His riff on VR as "the next platform" might have seemed a bit presumptuous to anybody expecting VR to appeal mainly to gamers. But Zuckerberg struck an emotional chord with at least a few attendees.

Zuckerberg talked about the chance that a child's first steps might be recorded in 360-degree VR to be shared anywhere. Or, he said, you could "sit in front a campfire with friends any time you want." There will even be the ability for workers to hold meetings with people "anywhere you want," he added.

While the use of VR for work meetings with any frequency might be far off, it is starting to get on the radar of some.

"This is not going to be an overnight sensation, but the appeal of VR goes certainly beyond gaming, and tonight Zuck was smart in his focus on a more emotional and private part of VR -- shooting your kid's first steps," said Carolina Milanesi, chief of research at Kantar WorldPanel.

"VR content makes you re-live a moment, and offers you a full immersion in a much more real way than 3D video ever did," she added.

Milanesi and other analysts said they do see the appeal of VR for business and consumer uses alike. "More needs to happen, but we have seen great progress from last year already," she said.

Others said that some negative workplace experiences with virtual meetings in Second Life and other platforms several years ago had given some business managers pause in whether they will embrace VR video for meetings. One Cisco employee recalled having a virtual meeting where animated avatars began flying in without wearing any clothes, which quickly led to an end of that experience.

Still, recorded VR video is quite a different technology from what Second Life and animated virtual worlds provide, the employee agreed.

Bob O'Donnell, an analyst at Technalysis Research, said he had serious doubts about the prospects for VR despite Zuckerberg's strong emotional appeal.

"The short answer is no; I don't think VR is going to be that big," O'Donnell said. "I think VR is really more of a stepping stone towards augmented reality because VR feels too isolating, whereas AR lets you, in theory, interact with other people and the real world around you."

It has been nearly two years since Facebook agreed to buy Oculus VR for $2 billion. Zuckerberg described how working with Samsung on the Gear VR allowed production of an "affordable" $99 headset. "Millions will get their hands on Gear VR," he predicted.

One technological advance with VR, he said, is that Oculus technology has provided "dynamic streaming" that allows a 4x reduction in network bandwidth of a VR stream. Another benefit: A 4x improvement in the resolution of just a portion of the important details in a video frame -- the part where a person's eye is expected to focus. Eliminating the high resolution on much of the video is what keeps the network bandwidth down.

But even Zuckerberg admitted it is "still early" for VR. A big problem is the lack of VR-ready videos for viewing, as several analysts noted. Zuckerberg said about 20,000 VR clips have been uploaded, and that around a million hours have been watched.

He said that eventually, people will have the power to broadcast VR live, but only after solving a "lot of really complex engineering problems." Still, he said that Facebook and Oculus are committed to VR "for the long term."

To help with recording VR, Samsung announced the Gear 360, which works with the Gear VR headset. The Gear 360 has two cameras -- one on front and one on the back -- to allow users to shoot 360-degree videos. The videos are then viewed through the Gear VR, which works only with Samsung's Galaxy phones.

The Gear 360 is expected to ship later in 2016, and no pricing details for any of the products were announced.

In an indication of the industry interest in VR, Samsung's Networks division announced Monday it has delivered -- at Verizon's headquarters in New Jersey -- streaming, live, 360-degree VR content in 4K ultra-high definition to Galaxy phones and Galaxy Gear VR. Some 17 independent video feeds take advantage of what is termed mmWave, a 5G antenna technology that can deliver speeds of multiple gigabits per second.

During its presentation on the eve of Mobile World Congress, Samsung also announced the Galaxy S7 and Galaxy S7 Edge smartphones, which will be available March 11.


Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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