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Facebook Begins Its Push to Make Us Socialize in Virtual Reality

Mark Zuckerberg put on a headset and showed why he thinks you will want to hang out with friends in virtual space.
October 6, 2016

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg posted an unusual selfie with his wife and dog this morning. It’s supposed to preview a future in which millions or billions of people hang out with friends inside virtual reality.

Zuckerberg took the photo at an event in San Jose, California, as part of a demonstration of a social app in development for his company’s Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset. He wore a headset while controlling a legless avatar that made him look younger, and chatted with two colleagues with cartoonish bodies of their own.

The billionaire set up his unusual family photo by “teleporting” into a 360-degree video feed of a room inside his home and looping in his wife, Priscilla Chan, via video chat. He snapped the photo by controlling a virtual selfie stick using the Oculus Touch motion controllers that are set to be released in December.

The experience Zuckerberg showed off is, for now, still a research project. It includes tricks like special hand gestures that trigger a user’s avatar to smile, open its mouth in surprise, or look confused. But Oculus also announced its first real forays into social virtual reality today.

A feature called Oculus Rooms allows people to get together in a kind of simulated clubroom where they can play games such as poker, listen to music, play ball, or just chat. The room also provides an easy way to jump into virtual-reality apps with social features, such as one from Hulu that lets you watch movies and TV with distant friends.

A version of Oculus Rooms will be available via the Gear VR headset soon. A richer version will come to the Rift and its powerful motion controllers next year.

Oculus also announced a new system that lets you meticulously customize your appearance in virtual social spaces. The Oculus Avatars system will be released in December with the intention that content developers will build around it, allowing you to look the same whether you’re (virtually) exploring Mars or visiting a chat room.

Zuckerberg’s vision for social virtual reality could take much longer to become real than his vision for Facebook, now used by roughly 1.7 billion people. The social network grew fast by building on top of existing social connections and the fact that most people in its target markets had access to the Internet.

Getting started with the Oculus Rift headset and controllers, on the other hand, will cost $1,600 or more thanks to the price of the gadgets and the powerful PC needed to drive them.

Michael Booth, who leads Facebook’s social VR efforts, says the current scarcity of virtual-reality headsets needn’t be a problem. Letting people in virtual spaces share their experiences with people on more conventional platforms provides a way for VR socializing to be rewarding today, he says.

The way Mark Zuckerberg could use Facebook’s video chat inside his virtual chat room today provides one example. The social network also announced today that it will be possible to stream video of your Oculus Rift or Gear VR experience to your Facebook friends.

Booth says features like that will help make social VR rewarding for those who have the hardware today, and convince more people to buy the necessary gear. “The ultimate goal is we want to put you in a position where you can choose to fly thousands of miles to visit your mom, or jump into VR and feel like we’re together instantly,” he says.

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