By Scott Stein

Facebook’s Quest 2 is already a successful game system. It’s aiming for more.

Facebook Reality Labs head Andrew Bosworth discusses why identity in Oculus is so Facebook-centric, how that will change, and when to expect neural input tech. (Spoiler alert: Not this year.)

After a 2020 that went entirely virtual for many people, once-fantastic concepts like VR headsets and remote chat screens (including Facebook Portal) no longer seem so strange. In many ways, Facebook’s product lineup ended up being prophetic for the times we now live in.

Last fall,  Facebook launched its impressive Quest 2 VR headset. So, in 2021, what comes next? The company plans to release its first smartglasses this year, in a partnership with glasses-maker Luxottica. But those won’t be the advanced reality-blending glasses you might be expecting. 

Meanwhile, Facebook’s new Facebook-mandatory VR login process frustrated many customers (and developers) in 2020. Facebook doesn’t have plans to change that, but there may be changes to how flexible your Facebook identity could be. And the Quest is finally allowing multiple accounts soon. But how much will people trust Facebook as the broker of their virtual universe?

Andrew Bosworth, the head of Facebook Reality Labs (which runs all of Facebook’s VR and AR efforts), spoke with me about the company’s 2021 mission statement, what comes next, and when we could see neural input devices emerge.

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We don’t know what Facebook’s promised smartglasses, announced last year, will look like.Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

Smartglasses are coming this year, but they’re not AR

While Facebook is planning true augmented reality glasses that can display virtual objects overlaid with the real world, those aren’t ready now. In the meantime, Facebook is releasing its first pair of smartglasses in 2021 in a partnership with Luxottica’s Ray-Ban brand.

Bosworth says of the glasses, “We’re being careful not to call them augmented reality glasses. When you’re overlaying digital artifacts onto the world, that’s really augmented reality. These aren’t augmented reality glasses. However, they do a lot of the concepts we think will eventually be critical for augmented reality glasses. It’s all components that people have seen before, but never all in one place. I’m being very coy about the feature set, as you can tell — that’s intentional, I’m not going to answer specifically what features it has. But I will say, one of the things that we’re looking at for all of AR, starting with our smart glasses, is how can they help you be more present.”

Bosworth is dismissive of notifications, saying these glasses will help you stay connected and so you won’t miss moments through a screen, or while fumbling for a phone. These are similar propositions to what Google Glass and Snapchat Spectacles had over the last decade. “I gotta say, the notifications don’t motivate me that much,” Bosworth says. “I’m more excited about the other cases. What are the actual things that I use the phone for, that maybe I don’t have to take it out of my pocket to use anymore if I have a really good device.”

Bosworth won’t confirm whether these glasses will have their own display or not, but he sees the first version being a prototype towards building a new idea for the company. They may be more restrained at first.

“I think they’re going to help people stay connected to each other, and never feel like they’re out of touch with somebody else. And also just be useful,” Bosworth says. “The fact that we’re able to work with [Luxottica] on a critical form factor, making this acceptable for people to put on their face, to represent them, is hugely important to us.”

Facebook’s not budging on Facebook logins for VR

One of the most controversial shifts for the Oculus VR platform last year was a mandatory Facebook sign-in. I asked if that policy would shift, and Bosworth emphatically said no — but there could be changes in how flexible the Facebook account’s toolset can be. “The Facebook login is a critical part to us. You can still be Batman, we wanted to open up the ability to be Bruce Wayne,” Bosworth says, referring to an analogy he made last yearabout how VR already excels at fantasy, but isn’t so great at being “real.” Bosworth sees the Facebook login as a step towards building better work tools.

“I want us to be on the most robust, best privacy infrastructure in the world, which is Facebook’s. I want us to take our engineers and put them towards the one thing they can uniquely do, which is advance VR. And then that means I have to earn the trust back of consumers for whom that makes them uncomfortable. And I believe we’re up to that task,” Bosworth says. He explains that the next step will be, likely, opening up more Facebook apps to VR. “Facebook is moving towards a real product focus on account management for the entire family of apps. So for us, I want to support workplace accounts. I want to support Facebook accounts. Over time, I want to support the whole Facebook suite of accounts.”

Bosworth still sees improved support for virtual personas with Facebook logins, and maybe even carrying that over to the rest of Facebook. 

“This is a new medium: You need to support the personas, you need to support people who are maintaining a really rich identity,” Bosworth says. “In Facebook, we have an identity for you, which allows us to do a lot of really good things … making sure that we’ve got anti-abuse, building a safe and healthy community. But then how you present yourself, that’s really up to you. We really want to continue to embrace that … I think that our approach to giving people a lot of control over their persona is going to have an impact on the rest of the company, it’s going to go the other way.”

Bosworth also admits that multiple accounts on one headset, which is finally arriving soon, was way overdue. “Account management for devices that are shared is important. And it’s a piece that I think we’re behind on, and are moving to making better solutions for.”

The Oculus Quest 2’s next steps include work apps

2020 saw Facebook’s Oculus Quest VR headset landing in more people’s homes, and Bosworth acknowledges that there has to be more than just games. Right now that’s the majority of the Quest’s apps are.

Facebook promised a workspace environment called Infinite Office last year, and it’s still on track for 2021. “I do VR meetings every week, testing our Infinite Office product suite, which is early, but really coming along,” Bosworth says. “It’s unparalleled, when I’m working from home. It’s the next best thing to being in an office together. And in some cases, it can be better.” Bosworth also sees workplace overlaps with Facebook Portal, using Portal for video chat and VR for larger workflows. And, maybe, having the two intertwine.

“We want to start with simple components that people can use and that are individually useful. And over time, if those grow, yeah, they do grow together. You hope it’s not just something that you put on with the intent to attend a meeting,” Bosworth says of the planned software, which he says he’s using constantly. 

The Quest 2’s Infinite Office space looks like a more built-out way to add keyboard support and virtual monitors for cloud computing in the headset. It’s not clear yet what else will be added — or what the release timeframe will be.

“It’s a little more distant than I’d like,” Bosworth says. “I wish it was further advanced, because obviously, I’m enjoying using it. I do feel like I’m living a little bit in the future, which is a fun experience I’d love to share with more people.”

Bosworth admits extra challenges for a workplace-focused VR approach. “There’s a lot of things you have to get right. Suddenly, you’re in an office environment, how you represent somebody’s person, and how you relate to those people, is really important. If people are going to rely on it, you’ve got to be at a level of reliability which is very high, even higher than I think VR is used to having to meet in the gaming space. It’s a huge focus for us. It’s something that we’re dogfooding every week, it’s something I’m using every week and getting used to. It’s a little further out right now, just candidly. It’s some of the trickiest work that we’re doing.”

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I took this VR selfie with CNET’s Joan Solsman in Horizon last year. The social platform still isn’t open to the public.Facebook

Facebook’s social VR app, Horizon, is still not ready for the public

“We have the volume, we have the people, we have the engagement,” Bosworth says of the Quest 2. “That tells me this is something, that now people are able to be in there with their friends.” Facebook’s social hub, Horizon, entered limited private beta last year, but it’s been off-limits for everyone else. 

“What we found is that the creator tools are really robust. They’re really good. The technical platform is really good,” Bosworth says of Horizon. But he suggests that the in-app experiences aren’t ready, comparing it to bowling.

“We’ve got to build those pins. We got to build those lanes, so that people have an excuse to come down. I think we finally got all the technical work in place. Now we’ve gotta actually jumpstart the experience and make it something that’s vibrant … If you don’t have … something driving a lot of people to the place, then you run the risk they’re not going to get it. Horizon needs to fit that vision where it’s really VR for everybody.”

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The Oculus Quest 2: Will it start playing better with health platforms?Scott Stein/CNET

Oculus Quest fitness tools could keep growing

I’ve found myself using the Quest 2 as a fitness device more than ever, and Oculus now has a system-wide fitness tracking app called Move that makes it feel almost like a virtual Fitbit. Bosworth sees more possibilities, especially for subscription fitness apps such as Supernatural. 

“There’s quite a few really good developers driving different fitness programs for different people. We want to support them, we’re also thinking about the subscription models that they’re using, how can we make those economics work better for them,” Bosworth says.

He suggests that Oculus might start connecting with existing health platforms. “We had a really good suggestion on Twitter recently to make sure that the Oculus app on your phone imports any Oculus Move data into Apple Health. We’re looking at those types of things.”

Neural inputs: Not this year (but maybe in 3-5)

Finally, I asked Bosworth about Facebook’s progress with neural interfaces. Facebook acquired neurotechnology company CTRL-Labs in 2019, promising impulse-sensing armbands that could eventually be used alongside or in place of hand tracking.

“I think we’ll start to see early forms of it, kind of low-bitrate forms of neural interfaces, sooner than maybe people think,” Bosworth says of the tech. When I asked if that meant 2021, he clarified that “sooner than people think” is more like several years.

“In three to five years, yes, you’ll start to see the early forms of it. And they’ll be a little finicky and a little gimmicky,” Bosworth predicts. “I think in five to 10 years, you start to see pretty robust forums that really start to change the game.”

Bosworth sees a lot of possibilities for neural inputs and AR. But he sees a lot more, too.

“At first, it’s gonna be completely conventional and gimmicky,” Bosworth says. “And then it’ll be kind of more profound, but it’ll still work inside of existing paradigms … using neural interfaces, for example, to operate a keypad or a touchpad that you can see. And then eventually, we get to a really cool place, maybe in the 20-year timeframe, where … rather than intentions to motions, intentions to accomplish a goal are interpreted. When AI and neural interfaces come together … whoo, boy, that’s exciting to me.”

And, he admits, AR in general is still going to take a lot of work with a potentially very large team. In response to reports on a 6,000-person AR/VR team at Facebook, Bosworth says, “There was a report of the size of my team that went out. And I can neither confirm nor deny anything about that report. I just think people don’t understand how hard this is, as an industry. We haven’t tackled a challenge this hard in a long time. It really is that scope, it’s back to Xerox PARC days, it’s back to Bell Labs. It’s that scope of challenge for AR.”

Via CNET.com

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