Facebook's Really Big Plans For Virtual Reality
Bloomberg Businessweek|August 01 - August 07, 2016

Facebook's really big plans for Virtual Reality.

Bryant Urstadt, Sarah Frier

The office building on Facebook Way is in the unfinished style that honors materials like plywood, concrete, and steel. The I-beams supporting its soaring walls still have the builders’ chalk placement instructions on them. It takes a business making billions of high-margin dollars to make plywood and concrete seem so appealing. The merely ordinary have to put up drywall.

Facebook’s spokeswoman calls its headquarters the largest single room in the world. Maybe. It feels like it, anyway. The space isn’t square, so it doesn’t seem pointedly vast; it’s long and narrow. Heading to meet Mark Zuckerberg, the wizard of this open-plan office, you wind through it like an Ikea, following a painted path. The desks are orderly and clean with minimalist Macs. From time to time, there’s a map with a “you are here” helpfully posted. Then, at the center, standing at his desk announcing something to a colleague, there’s Zuckerberg. He’s a great stander; he has terrific posture. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer, author of Lean In and the de facto leader of all corporate women, wraps something up and heads down the painted path.

If you spray-painted Zuckerberg a high-gloss white and told him to gaze off into the distance, he’d look exactly like a 1st century A.D. bust of Tiberius at the Capitoline Museum in Rome. Zuckerberg would get the reference. A scholar of the classics, he named his daughter Maxima, after the Roman, not the Nissan, and once declared at an anti-Google Plus all-hands meeting, “Carthago delenda est.” (This was Cato the Elder’s call to destroy Carthage, which posed a threat to Rome’s active user base.) Zuckerberg doesn’t wear a toga, unfortunately, but like any icon, he has a signature look—gray T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers.

He joins the interview immediately, projecting sunshine. This won’t be a grind, like his recent emergency meeting with U.S. conservatives, convincing them that his army of overachieving twenty somethings isn’t totally biased in what it promotes on the news feed. Our subject today is … The Future. In particular, that of Oculus, the maker of virtual reality goggles and software, which Zuckerberg bought in 2014.

The interview takes place in a fishbowl-like room in the middle of the middle of the world’s largest room. There’s an L-shaped gray midcentury-modern couch, a square coffee table, two enormous black flat-panel screens. Zuckerberg has light green eyes that fix on an interviewer like security cameras. You can’t avoid them. You can’t figure out exactly what’s on the other side of them, either.

In one way or another, he says, he’s thought about the rendering of reality for decades. “It’s something that I’ve dreamed about since I was a kid,” he says. “I remember in middle school I would just sit in my math class with my notebook and write code. I didn’t even have a computer in middle school. I’d just, like, go home and write it. And I sketched out how I thought that eventually the operating system and the experience should be 3D, and basically more of a VR thing.” Zuckerberg is 32 and was in middle school in about 1995, a few years after Neal Stephenson outlined his dark vision for the “metaverse,” a computer- generated alternate reality, in his novel Snow Crash.

About 20 years later, Zuckerberg offered the founders of Oculus $2 billion to join him. That was hard to turn down. First of all, it was $2 billion. More important, it implied the long-term backing of Zuckerberg, who controls Facebook with a special class of shares. There are other shareholders, many of them, but they don’t have the same rights or power over the cash flow, which amounted to about $1.8 billion in the first quarter of 2016.

Oculus is Latin for “eye,” and the Oculus Rift, which went on sale earlier this year and lists for $599, is an incredible device. Strapped to the head, it offers 360 degrees of vision and sound, potentially opening new possibilities in playing games—the gateway drug for VR, Zuckerberg says. He also wants it to be used for watching sports, making movies, joining conversations around the world, or things no one’s imagined yet. But it’s still limited—in resolution, how it tracks movement, and how the body responds to what it projects, among many other things. The problems are enormous and require a deeper understanding of human sensory mechanisms than currently exists. (For example, how should a pair of goggles follow the movement of the eye to allow the processor to manipulate the plane of focus?) It’s going to take billions to make it work.

Zuckerberg, asked about this directly, doesn’t flinch at the thought of building a NASA-like research park for VR. “This is early, and it’s going to be a long-term thing,” he says. “This is a good candidate to be the next major computing platform. It’s worthy of a lot of investment over a long period.”

He often talks of connecting the world. But with virtual reality, the terms of that connection have been upped exponentially. “We’ve connected 1.65 billion people through Facebook,” Zuckerberg says. “But if you want to help get all 7 billion people connected and make a step function in the fidelity of how people can share and consume content, you need to make significant investments in some of these longer- term things where you actually do time horizon is. … I don’t know who said , hard to predict what the world will be like y thing is actually predicting or figuring out how to get there." 

A decade ago, people online mostly shared text all got good cameras that were attached to our phones, and it got a bit richer,” Zuckerberg says. “And now we’re at the beginning of this—we call it the golden age of online video, and that's just richer. Photos are richer than text; video, much richer than photos. But that’s not the end, right? I mean, it’s like this indefinite continuum of getting closer and closer to being able to capture what a person’s natural experience and thought is, and just being able to immediately capture that and design it however you want and share it with whomever you want.”

The spread of video has taken thrilling and sometimes shocking turns, and VR will likely build on that in ways we don’t yet understand: Imagine Facebook Live at a riot, but in fully immersive form. Talking about the future, even Zuckerberg can get stumped and slide into the mystical. Some of the problems don’t even have names yet. VR, at true fidelity, entails creating another reality, the presence and automation of everything that exists. Then there are the deep problems of connecting to the brain, which leads to telepathy, something he isn’t opposed to discussing. “I think you get—I mean, there’s something that’s just—that’s deeper, that I don’t even think we scientifically understand about just how you actually experience the world,” he says. “I think there’s outside, and there’s different fidelities of capturing that. And then there’s the human experience of it, which I think is—I mean, we don’t even have enough of a scientific understanding to even have—I think I don’t, at least, have the vocabulary to even fully describe this.”

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