Facebook Plans to Launch Social VR App “As Soon As Possible”

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Facebook, parent company of Oculus, is beginning to flex its virtual reality arm. The company wants to use the technology revolutionize how social interactions happen across the web, and we may see the first stages of that plan earlier than expected.

Back when Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for $2 billion, people were… confused. What’s a social media company doing buying a company that makes VR headsets? For Facebook, it was (and still is) a long-term bet; the vision is to keep the company on the leading edge of online social communication when ‘Facebook.com’ and the websites of today become less relevant in the face of increasingly natural human-computer interaction.

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What do online social networks look like in 10 to 20 years when people rarely interact with computers using a keyboard, mouse, and monitor? That’s the answer Facebook wants to find out before its competitors, and the reason they dropped $2 billion on Oculus. Mainstream social VR at the scale of Facebook.com is far off, but we may have our hands on the company’s first social VR offering earlier than expected.

The company has been prototyping internally to find out how to create a compelling social virtual reality experience. We saw the first evidence of that experimentation back in April during Facebook’s F8 conference when they revealed their first social VR experience that allowed users to visit photospheres together, take virtual selfies, and draw interactive accessories to customize their avatars.

Earlier this month at the Oculus Connect developer conference, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed the latest iteration of the company’s social VR prototype which featured new avatars, videospheres, and even the ability to make video calls from the real world into the virtual world via Facebook Messenger.

Speaking about that new demonstration in a session at the Connect conference, Facebook Social VR Product Manager Mike Booth explored the experiments that led to the impressive experience showed on stage.

At the end of the session I asked Booth whether Facebook planned to wait and put out their social VR offering as a big company-wide launch, or if the public would get their hands on it sooner.

“As soon as possible,” Booth said, further explaining that Facebook wants to get their first social VR experience out the door quickly and iterate with feedback from early users. When asked if we were likely to see that before the end of 2016, he was tight lipped. “When it’s done.”

In the session, Booth said that Facebook’s social VR team had experimented with a number of activities and spaces for friends to congregate in virtual reality, ranging from tabletop games to apartments that users could decorate to their taste. In the end, they scraped most of those activities to keep the core of the Facebook social VR experience focused on social interaction and sharing, rather than gaming.

It’s taken time for Oculus to become fully absorbed into its parent organization, but the Facebook brand is becoming increasingly engaged with its virtual reality division. We saw that in full force at Oculus Connect with Zuckerberg taking to the stage to lead a major portion of the opening keynote (where he showed the new Facebook social VR experience), leaving Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe to bring up the tail end of that portion of the presentation. Further, Connect saw a new approach to branding by Oculus which is now prominently underlined with a ‘From Facebook’ slogan.

Oculus’ early social VR efforts on their mobile Gear VR platform seem to have largely been forgotten in the transition. What we’ve seen from Facebook and Oculus this month suggests a new, more extensive social VR initiative has spun up internally and taken the place of prior efforts.