By Mike Isaac

For years, the idea that virtual reality would become mainstream has remained exactly this: virtual.

Although tech giants like Facebook and Sony have spent billions of dollars trying to perfect the experience, virtual reality has remained a niche toy for enthusiasts willing to pay thousands of dollars, often for a VR headset. clumsy attached to a powerful gaming computer.

That changed last year during the pandemic. As people lived more of their lives digitally, they started buying more VR headsets. Sales of VR gear have increased, led by Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2, a headset launched last fall, according to research firm IDC.

To continue this momentum, Facebook on Thursday introduced a virtual reality service called Horizon Workrooms. The product, which is free to download for Quest 2 owners, offers a virtual meeting room where people using headsets can meet as if they were at an in-person business meeting. Participants join with a customizable cartoon avatar of themselves. Interactive virtual whiteboards line the walls so people can write and draw like in a physical conference room.

The product is another step towards what Facebook considers the ultimate form of social connection for its 3.5 billion users.

“Somehow, I think we’re going to live in a mixed reality future,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said during a media roundtable this week in virtual reality using Workrooms.

At the event, Zuckerberg’s avatars and about a dozen Facebook employees, journalists, and tech support staff gathered in what looked like an open, well-lit virtual conference room. Zuckerberg’s avatar wore a long-sleeved button-down shirt in a dark Facebook blue. (My avatar had a red, checkered flannel shirt.) Since Workrooms only shows participants as floating torsos sitting around a wooden desk, no one bothered about choosing pants.

Facebook was early in virtual reality. In 2014, he paid $ 2 billion to buy the Oculus VR headset startup. At the time, Zuckerberg promised that technology “would allow you to experience the impossible.”

The deal sparked a wave of virtual reality acquisitions and financings. Investment in VR startups has swelled, while companies like HTC and Sony have also pledged VR headsets for the masses. Microsoft developed the HoloLens, hologram projection glasses.

But the hype has fizzled. The first generation of most VR hardware, including Facebook’s Oculus Rift, was expensive. Almost all headsets required users to be logged into a personal computer. There were no obvious “killer apps” to attract people to the devices. Worse yet, some people have had nausea after using the products.

The next generation of VR headsets are focused on reducing costs. Samsung’s Gear VR, Google Cardboard, and Google Daydream have all asked consumers to put on goggles and put their smartphones down for use as VR displays. These efforts also failed because smartphones weren’t powerful enough to deliver an immersive virtual reality experience.

“People would always ask me, ‘Which VR headset should I buy? ”Said Nick Fajt, CEO of Rec Room, a popular video game among VR enthusiasts. “And I always said, ‘Just wait.’ “

To adapt, some companies have started offering virtual reality not for the masses but for narrower areas. Magic Leap, a startup that billed itself as the next big innovation in augmented reality computing, has moved on to selling virtual reality devices to businesses. Microsoft went in a similar direction, with a particular focus on military contracts, although it said it was “absolutely” still working towards a mainstream consumer product.

In 2017, even Zuckerberg admitted on an earnings call that Facebook’s bet on Oculus was “taking a little longer” than it initially thought.

Facebook devoted the following years to research and development to eliminate the need for a captive cable connecting the VR headset to the PC, thus freeing up the user’s freedom of movement while keeping the device powerful enough to deliver a feel. virtual immersion.

He also worked on “indoor tracking,” a way to monitor the position of a VR headset in relation to its surroundings, writing new algorithms that are more energy efficient and don’t consume a device’s battery too quickly.

Atman Binstock, chief architect of Oculus, said there were also improvements in simultaneous location and mapping, or “SLAM tracking,” which allows a virtual reality device to understand the unmapped space around. of him while recognizing his own position in this space. Advances in SLAM tracking have helped developers create more interactive digital worlds.

The changes helped create the $ 299 Quest 2 last year, which doesn’t require a PC or other bulky hardware to use and was relatively easy to set up.

Facebook doesn’t detail Oculus sales figures, but headphone revenue more than doubled in the first three months of Quest 2 availability. Facebook has sold 5 million to 6 million headsets, analysts said.

This was roughly the same amount as Sony’s PlayStation VR, widely regarded as the most successful VR device on the market, sold from 2016, when it debuted, until 2020. (Sony announced an upcoming VR system that will work with the PlayStation 5, its flagship game console.)

Andrew Bosworth, vice president of Facebook Reality Labs, which oversees the Oculus products division, said Facebook has also paid developers tens of millions of dollars to help them create games and other applications for virtual reality. .

“Even when VR was difficult for all of VR in 2016, developers needed us to take some of the risk,” he said.

Oculus has also purchased several game studios and other VR-based companies, such as BigBox VR, Beat Games, and Sanzaru Games, to create more VR content.

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