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Is Facebook about to get a Virtual Reality check?

The firm's CTO cautions against advertisers' haste...

MWC16 “I’m incredibly bullish on virtual reality,” Facebook’s chief technology officer Mark Schroepfer tells The Reg.

No surprise there, then.

“But it’s a brand new platform that will start slow and take a while to develop,” he continued on a brief stop-over in London late last year. “Part of the thing we are trying to avoid that’s happened with other things is people overhyped them and got too excited – everybody will be doing this.”

Wait, what? Facebook’s chief technology officer is urging caution?

It was Schroepfer, after all, who around the same time, late last year, had been quoted as saying Facebook was “effectively building a teleporter.”

“Facebook wants to build a device that allows you to be anywhere you want, with anyone, regardless of geographic boundaries,” he’d told the Dublin Web Summit.

Meeting Schroepfer shortly after, I brought this up: “You’re inventing a teleporter.”

Schroepfer laughed it off. “Ha, ha, ha – we will get to that. Yeah. I’m not really here.”

Of course, the crucial qualifying adverb in Schroepfer’s claimed quote was “effectively". There’s many a slip twixt cup and lip, and the word “effectively” can cover a good deal of them. Not that that stopped clickabaity headline writers going ape over the whole thing.

Three months on and here we are at Mobile World Congress and Facebook is back pushing VR and its role in advancing the state of the art.

The presence of Schroepfer’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg, has turned an otherwise ordinary smartphone keynote - about the next Galaxies - into a VR headline-grabber.

Zuckerberg used the stage to announce the formation of a Social VR team at Facebook, whose mandate is to explore the future of social interaction in VR.

According to Facebook:

This team will explore how people can connect and share using today’s VR technology, as well as long-term possibilities as VR evolves into an increasingly important computing platform.

They’ll will work closely with Oculus and other teams at Facebook to build the foundation for tomorrow’s social VR experiences on all platforms.

Facebook’s dynamic streaming technology for its 360 video is coming to Gear VR “in the next few weeks.”

Hurray. Plug me in. But wait. The future isn’t here yet.

The Social VR team isn’t building VR - it’s researching it. And not just the technology, but the human and social aspects to interacting, too. Facebook also concedes “a lot” of hardware and software challenges still need to be solved.

Swallow the MWC Samsung coverage and the daily, drip, drip of media coverage and it’s not a matter of if, but when VR makes the mainstream.

Which brings us back to Schroepfer. “Virtual reality will be a very, very small segment of enthusiasts and early adopters next year [2016],” Schroepfer told me.

Don't hate the player, hate the...oh, never mind

The pressure and expectations are building, but the technology isn’t ready. “Every advertiser I talk to says: ‘What can I do with virtual reality?’ and I say: ‘Nothing. Right now – wait until there’s more people using it, and it’ll be great. You will notice when more people are using it at home’,” Schroepfer said.

This all reminds me of Second Life when shops, brands, news outlets and tech vendors scrambled into Linden Labs' brave new world to reach avatars that ranged from the physically flattering to the weird. Second Life is now, officially, Not The FutureTM.

Nope. The advertisers are too previous. “It will start slow and grow,” Schroepfer reckoned of this generation’s escape from physical reality. "It’s not there yet."

Gaming, as ever, is the first port of call for this chapter in tech and Facebook at MWC hailed “more than” 200 games and apps on the Oculus store and running on Gear VR.

But gamers are the wrong audience. That’s because contrary to what gamers themselves might think, they do not represent society. Gaming was, and remains, mostly an overwhelmingly male-dominated activity populated by those with some form of disposable income. Wider society has subtle issues of gender diversity, age and salary disparities that must be negotiated.

What really took console games out of the hands of men and male yoof wasn’t yet another Playstation or Xbox; it was Nindendo’s Wii. Women, families and different age groups finally joined in when handsets evolved from a series of baffling X and Y, R and L buttons to a simple gesture that did, well ... what you wanted.

Gaming and entertainment are one of the first opportunities for VR – not the end point.

“You will be in your own living room, not on a bus, in your own living room where it’s safe, put a VR head set on and have this amazing immersive experience where there are none of these concerns that you have weird headset on,” Schroepfer said.

What will really help VR hit critical mass is apps serving vertical sectors in the broader economy. But don’t take that from me. Take it from Facebook’s CTO. “It [VR] does grow over time when there are lots of vertical applications - be that simulation or experience based,” he said.

He cited sales agents at estate agents using VR headsets to walk prospective clients through a programmed reality instead of a physical model or a TV-based artist's impression of what a future build should look like for a prospective client.

That of course might take the involvement of big software makers and suchlike, for whom vertical sectors are their thing. Enterprise giant SAP, for one, has a track record of getting in on augmented reality at the ground level with SDKs for Google’s Glass as well as its project for “data glasses” with Vuzix in 2013.

Of course, Glass has had its own problems and Schroepfer is quick to distance Oculus from Google: Glass is "augmented reality," he points out, not VR.

And that's why Schroepfer has become the emissary of caution. VR has been pitched and failed at various times before and look what happened. VR now has a designated importance to Facebook's future thanks to the personal intervention of its CEO. Moreover, the chief's credibility is now on the line thanks to his personal intervention. Getting it wrong would be immensely embarrassing for everybody concerned. You can't airbrush that out of history, though you can try.

Success in the mass market, where it's demanded, will, therefore, not be created with a big bang, but rather something that's built step by step. It will be founded on a broad coalition across different sectors of business and society.

The future ain’t as exciting as some click-baiter headline writers might like. But that's reality for you. ®

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