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Three Questions for Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer

Facebook’s head of technology explains how VR will be social and why Oculus is unlikely to make a version of its headset that works with all kinds of smartphones anytime soon.
September 25, 2015

Mike Schroepfer, Facebook’s chief technology officer, first saw Oculus’s virtual reality headset more than a year and a half ago, along with Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, when Oculus—then a tiny startup—brought an early demo unit to the social network’s office in Menlo Park, California.

Mike Schroepfer
Mike Schroepfer

A lot has changed since then: Facebook paid $2 billion to buy Oculus in a deal that closed last July, and Oculus is gearing up to launch its first consumer virtual-reality headset in the first quarter of next year.

During an Oculus developer conference in Los Angeles this week, Schroepfer sat down with MIT Technology Review to talk about how virtual reality can go mainstream and the challenges of making VR technology that’s compatible with many devices.  

Right now, a lot of the emerging applications for virtual reality are games and videos. Will we get to the point where we’re using virtual reality with our friends?

This is actually the true promise of VR, and the thing that will take the longest to develop, because to have a socially engaging product you have to have both people and the technology. I think you may see the equivalent of LAN parties and other things—you know, back in the day people would cart their computers over and sit down because the social part is so fun. I’m guessing this will start with that.

You can imagine a bunch of entertainment experiences which are really not that much about entertainment, mostly as a foil to give something for people to focus on and have a conversation, and I think you’re going to see that class of things. There’s also the more direct and interactive—so I have little kids, so I run around and chase them with a laptop and a camera so my parents can see them all the time. You could see at some point in the future where they could kind of beam into our living room and interact in a more direct way.

How can virtual reality become a mass-market technology if it’s expensive? The upcoming Gear VR will cost $99—half as much as the existing version—but still requires a pricey Samsung smartphone. And while Facebook and Oculus haven’t yet said how much the Rift will cost, we know it will require a user to have a computer that costs around $1,000.

The good news is hardware trends are on our side on this, where you’d hope that the equipment used to experience this gets more readily accessible and less expensive over time. The PC required to render the Rift is under $1,000 now, but two years from now it’ll be probably half that price for the exact class of machine. When you look at the Gear VR, if you already have that [Samsung phone], then it’s an additional $99, which is not that much in order to experience it—which is pretty incredible if you think about what it was like five, 10 years ago, where you had to go to the handful of labs in the world that had this stuff.

Is there a chance Facebook would create a version of the Gear VR that would work for many different smartphones, in hopes of encouraging more people to try out virtual reality? The first version only works with one Samsung smartphone, and the upcoming version works with just four of them.

I don’t know. Right now we’re deep partners with Samsung on this. You kind of have to build all the hardware and software together. It’s hard to build something generic that is actually a good experience.  It’s tuned for the right specifics of the phone, and the software is pretty deeply embedded.

The amount of hardware and software engineering that went into this—when you put it on, you’re like, ‘Oh, this is great.’ But it is the best mobile VR experience, bar none. It has all these small details, like super-low latency when it updates, the particular screen technology that’s on the particular phones you have; [they] have some capabilities that most phones don’t have. The software that John [Carmack, Oculus’s chief technology officer] wrote is deeply integrated into the OS; that allows it to update very quickly. We just actually don’t know how to create that exact experience with a broader set of devices now. In the future, who knows?

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