Facebook wants virtual reality to 'redefine our tribe'

With Social VR, Facebook envisions the day when proximity isn’t the main basis for relationships

Imagine a day when you're catching up with your college roommate in London as you sit in your office in Boston -- just like you would if you were in the same room together.

That's the vision Facebook has for the future of social networking.

That future, according to Yaser Sheikh, a Facebook Oculus VR researcher and associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University, will be based on virtual reality, or Social VR.

"Social VR done right lets us define our tribe and who we hang out with and do business with based on choice and not proximity," Sheikh said during a keynote talk during the second day of Facebook's annual F8 developers conference in San Francisco today. "Proximity would no longer determine who you spend your time with."

Facebook has been increasingly involved with VR in recent years, buying headset maker Oculus and launching Gear VR. But for all its investment and the buzz around VR, Facebook has been fairly quiet about its plans.

So what does the company want to do? Help people make more connections on Facebook, of course. And that would help keep users joining the social network and spending more of their online time on the site instead of straying to social rivals.

"I think this is a new effort at Facebook, but it's a serious one," said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner who is attending F8 this week. "Virtual reality experiences we will see in the next few years will integrate new sensors and algorithms specifically focused on socialization, so while it's not here today, I expect it will be readily available once virtual reality moves from niche to mainstream."

According to Sheikh, the day is fast approaching when using VR to connect with friends and relatives on Facebook will be largely indistinguishable from the real world. "The technology disappears and you're simply interacting with another person," he said. "Making social interactions in virtual reality as natural as they are in the real world is one of the grand challenges of the day. It'll be transformative."

Sheikh expects virtual reality to enable friends now scattered around the globe to meet on Facebook and play poker as if they were in the same room. People will have "in-person" job interviews and participate in company meetings without leaving their own home offices. Employees will work with remote teams as if they were actually all together in one spot.

The same will be true for shopping and sight-seeing.

"We can make it possible for people to experience genuine, deeply convincing relationships remotely," Sheikh said, adding that he wants his children in Pittsburgh to have a 3D relationship with his family in Abu Dhabi. "My children only know my family as moving images trapped behind a computer screen."

When will this be possible? Sheikh isn't sure.

At this point, Facebook has identified the obstacles in its way and it's working to solve those problems.

Scientists need to figure out how to capture subtle body movements, which convey so much meaning during a conversation. They'll need to build the complex code to capture head, hand and facial movements. They need to solve the issue of streaming latencies, which ruin the perception of a natural in-person connection.

"This could turn out to be a killer app, since it promises a much fuller experience than even video chat," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "Social VR could totally change the way we communicate. As the technology improves, the fidelity of the images will become even more lifelike and the latency will drop until it actually seems like you're in the same room with someone. Who knows, as the tech advances, some people might try to only communicate using Social VR."

Olds estimates we are probably five to seven years away from people using Social VR in their own homes.

Jeff Kagan, an independent industry analyst, agreed that Social VR isn't all that far in the future.

"Of course, we would all have to upgrade our devices, but that's something many do on a regular basis anyway," added Kagan. "This could be huge if they do it right.... For those who are interested, it will be the next best thing since Facebook itself."

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Sharon Gaudin

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