Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not an Insider? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Connectivity

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.

Virtual reality can make all kinds of content feel immersive and interactive, from games to education.

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?

Hear more about virtual reality from the experts at the EmTech Digital Conference, March 26-27, 2018 in San Francisco.

Learn more and register

Uh oh–you've read all of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium
$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Connectivity

What it means to be constantly connected with each other and vast sources of information.

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.
  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus the digital magazine, extensive archive, ad-free web experience, and discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

    Bimonthly digital/PDF edition

    Access to the magazine PDF archive—thousands of articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips

    Special interest publications

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Special discounts to select partner offerings

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning print magazine, unlimited online access plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

    Bimonthly print magazine (6 issues per year)

  • Insider Online Only {! insider.prices.online !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Unlimited online access including articles and video, plus The Download with the top tech stories delivered daily to your inbox.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website

    The Download: our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation

/
You've read all of your free articles this month. This is your last free article this month. You've read of free articles this month. or  for unlimited online access.