At OC6 Facebook Pushes Virtual Reality Forward

on September 27, 2019
Reading Time: 5 minutes

The buzz around Virtual Reality has faded for many, but this hasn’t dampened Facebook’s enthusiasm for the technology. After spending two days at the company’s Oculus Connect 6 conference, it’s easy to see why Mark Zuckerberg and the Facebook team still see a bright future for VR. They talked about the recent success of its Oculus Quest headset and made a handful of interesting announcements around better content availability, upgrades to existing hardware, and the path to increased commercial adoption. It also announced its next attempt at a VR-based social app called Horizon. I found the company’s story around three of four of those topics compelling.

Bringing Go and Rift Content to Quest
During his opening keynote, Zuckerberg said that sales of the Oculus Quest—Facebook’s newest standalone VR headset—have exceeded the company’s expectations. That’s not a terribly meaningful metric for the outside world, but I can tell you that in IDC’s 2Q19 numbers the Quest helped Facebook capture more than 38% of a 1.5-million headset worldwide market, with astounding year-over-year growth.

Perhaps more importantly, he and other executives went on to note that people are using the new headsets more often, and for longer periods of time, than any of the other Oculus headsets. This includes the lower-cost standalone Oculus Go and the PC-tethered Oculus Rift and new Rift S. Sales of software on the Quest are also taking off, and Facebook announced that it already represents about 20% of the more than $100M in Oculus app sales to date.

To feed that growth, Facebook is taking steps to make sure that existing content for both the Go and the Rift will run on Quest in the future. When I discussed my initial experience with the Quest, I lamented a good, but not great, app selection. In addition to trying to bring more developers into the ecosystem, the company is also working to bring more existing content to the Quest.

The first step—bringing Go content, much of which began life as content for the Samsung made Oculus Gear VR—is a straightforward process, as the earlier hardware is less capable than today’s Quest. Effective September 26, Facebook has made many of the most popular Go apps available on the Quest.

Even more interesting: Facebook is working to bring popular apps that run on the Oculus Rift and Rift S to the Quest. Those apps utilize the additional horsepower of the connected PC to run on the Rift headsets, while the Quest utilizes a mobile processor with less horsepower under the hood. To address this, Facebook announced a new technology called Oculus Link which will let Quest owners connect their headset to a PC using a Type C cable to utilize the PC’s processing and graphics.

Frankly, it’s a brilliant move. I’d argue that today’s Quest is among the best VR experience in the market, but its mobile chipset means it can’t drive the same level of resolution as a tethered system. The upside is the Quest feels more immersive because you’re not constantly dealing with the PC tether. With Oculus Link, Quest owners can have the best of both worlds: The ability to play in standalone or in tethered modes. Better still, the upgrade will be free. Quest owners will need a high-end Type C cable to make it work. While many of us have these cables, few will likely have one long enough for this job. Facebook will sell a premium cable when the upgrade rolls out in 2020.

VR Without Controllers
Perhaps the most notable technical announcement at the show was that in 2020 Oculus will bring hand-tracking technology to the existing Quest headset utilizing the existing integrated cameras. That right, no additional add-on cameras or room sensors required. During the keynote, and in later track sessions, various Facebook executives lauded the numerous advantages to using hand-tracking over today’s touch controllers. Chief among them: a more frictionless input modality, improved social presence, and enhanced self-presence. Yes, when you can see your own hands—sans controllers—the entire experience is more immersive.

In addition to driving interesting new gameplay options, and to create improved social interaction opportunities, I also heard from several large companies about the advantages of hand-tracking when it comes to soft-skills enterprise training. For example, when learning how to handle challenging HR situations in VR the training is more lifelike when the trainee is not holding on to touch controllers during the exercise.
There will still be plenty of VR situations where hand-held controllers will still be necessary, or even a better experience, but bringing hand-tracking to the Quest has the potential to drive a big shift in how people use the headset. And I’m heartened to see Oculus leveraging the existing hardware and bringing it to existing customers without the need to buy new accessories. The company’s willingness to continue to iterate on the platform will make both consumer and commercial buyers more willing to invest in the Quest.

Focus on Commercial Use
Until now, I’d say that the folks at HTC’s Vive team have done a better job of telling a strong commercial story, especially as it iterated on the Vive Pro hardware to bring more training-centric capabilities. At Connect, however, Oculus talked a great deal about Oculus for Business, its commercial platform currently in beta and set to launch in November. The company is putting together a very compelling commercial story that will take advantage of the strong capabilities of the Quest hardware.

I sat in on a session where Oculus walked attendees through the steps necessary to take a company from proof of concept to pilot to deployment. I’ll write more about this in a future column, but for now, I’ll say Oculus is asking the right questions and thinking about all the right things. Perhaps the biggest challenge it faces is convincing enterprise organizations that it knows how to help deploy and manage commercial hardware and software at scale.

To that end, Facebook announced that it would have a trusted channel partner network that includes a shortlist of big companies in that space including Synnex and TechData. Perhaps just as importantly, it is also currently working on standing up an ISV (independent software vendor) program with existing companies that have experience in deploying commercial VR solutions, who have handled pilots or deployments with Global 2000 customers, and who have experience with VR training, simulation, or collaboration use cases. In other words, Facebook has realized that it doesn’t have all the answers when it comes to commercial VR and it’s wisely looking for the best partners to help it address the areas where it still needs to learn.

On the Horizon
Facebook made a lot of interesting announcements this week at Oculus Connect. And the 90-minute session by John Carmack, which including an unvarnished postmortem on what went wrong with the Gear VR, is a must-listen for anyone who follows this market. But the one announcement that failed to land with me is the one where Facebook is likely spending the most money and effort: The launch of Facebook Horizon.

Facebook describes Horizon as “an interconnected and ever-expanding social VR world where people can explore new places, play games, and build communities.” It sounds interesting, on paper. But even watching the video, which shows increasingly lifelike (although still legless) avatars interacting in a perfectly rendered digital world, I kept thinking, “but what are you going to do in there?” It’s not clear to me that Facebook knows the answer to that.

Facebook Horizon will launch into beta in 2020, and the company hasn’t said when it would roll out to a larger audience. I’ll withhold judgment on Horizon until I’ve had a chance to experience it myself. Perhaps the company will surprise me. I did, however, think it was telling that during his talk even Carmack acknowledged Facebook continues to struggle to figure out the right way to do social in VR.

In the meantime, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Facebook roll out all the other updates to Oculus Quest. More apps, support for PC tethering, and integrated hand tracking should all help drive the market forward in meaningful ways. And I’ll be watching as the company ramps up to launch Oculus for Business later this year.