Anyone who’s ever played a video game is accustomed to designing their own character. You might make an avatar that looks exactly like you, or you might make something infused with fantasy elements, but the basic process is the same. Once that’s done, you’re free to pilot your avatar into your game and interact either with computer-generated characters or other players, each of whom has their own avatar. It’s not a new idea – it’s been around since the 1990s and will sound especially familiar to anyone who ever spent any time in “Second Life.”
Telling the difference between reality and your virtual environment in “Second Life” or any other video game isn’t difficult at the moment because the computer-generated avatars are so obviously computer-generated. If Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook have their way, that might soon change. Facebook’s mammoth VR department is currently working on creating “realistic” avatars for Facebook users and might be ready to deploy them sooner than we all imagine. The company is hard at work right now on VR and augmented reality that makes use of the Oculus VR headset, and it’s apparently making rapid progress.
Zuckerberg’s idea is for people to “meet up” in a virtual environment using photo-realistic avatars. He sees it as an improvement on telephone calls or Zoom meetings and believes it’s even possible for avatars to display their creators’ same personality traits. For example, he thinks that avatars might be able to hold eye contact while having a conversation or show the same quirks of movement as the person they represent – a flick of the hair, a shifting of the feet, and so on. It’s the sort of idea that sounds like it would have been more useful during 2020 than it hopefully will be in 2021, but there’s still likely to be a large market for the concept if Facebook can execute the idea successfully. Many industries still require employees to participate in large-scale video conference calls even when there isn’t a global pandemic. Those two-dimensional calls might soon be replaced by interactive environments where people can “attend in person” by strapping on a headset and piloting their avatar.
Zuckerberg’s surprising comments were made last week as the Facebook founder and CEO talked about the next generation of Oculus headsets. He believes that face and eye tracking will be possible with those headsets and that movements tracked by the headsets can be replicated by the avatars they power. That means if your conversational partner says something that makes you smile, they’ll see your avatar smile back at them. The idea probably sounds a little creepy to some, but it would be an impressive technological achievement all the same.
Not everything Facebook set out to do comes to fruition. In recent years we’ve seen the social media company try to diversity and find life outside the confines of its flagship website, making inroads into our homes with products like Facebook Portal and even trying to coax money out of our wallets with Facebook-hosted online slots casino. The jury is still out on whether Portal will succeed in the long term, but the online slots idea appears to be falling by the wayside. The Facebook-hosted casino page is still up on the website, but the range of slots it offers is dwarfed compared to the hundreds of online slots you’d find at any of the major websites. When stepping outside their comfort zone is mixed, their history of success is mixed, so a heavy focus on VR doesn’t mean they’ll eventually come up with a genuinely popular VR product. That being said, Oculus Quest headsets have been very well received by tech enthusiasts thus far, so there’s good reason to believe that they’ll continue to gain mainstream acceptance in the future so long as there isn’t a significant decline in quality.
With future versions of Oculus Quest, Zuckerberg hopes Facebook will be able to go even further. He imagines a virtual world where people can “meet up” in large groups, pick up and pass around virtual objects, and even play games together as if they were sitting side-by-side or face-to-face. He acknowledges that many of these ideas are several years away from becoming a reality but believes the next generation of VR headset hardware will be a significant step along the road toward them. We can’t make any assessment of the validity of his claims without seeing a working model, but we’re now especially excited to get our hands on one and see what it’s capable of when they’re ready.
Facebook can’t be accused of failing to invest in this emerging form of technology. According to the most recent figures available online, Facebook has approximately fifty thousand employees. Of those fifty thousand, one-fifth are currently assigned to the company’s virtual reality and augmented reality department. The “Reality Labs division,” as it’s known, currently contains almost ten thousand people. That’s a huge proportion of the company’s workforce and a massive commitment from Facebook to pushing the idea of VR and AR to the public. While the company won’t confirm every detail of what the Reality Labs division is working on, its design work involves several VR devices that aren’t headsets. For comparison, only around one thousand people were working for the department as recently as 2017. That was when the focus of the company’s VR operations was Oculus Rift. Since Oculus Quest replaced Oculus Rift, things have clearly been stepped up by several gears.
Mark Zuckerberg has consistently said that Facebook believes that VR and AR will be the major computing platforms of the future for the past few years. He sees it as a way of bringing people together across distances and bridging the gap between the virtual and the physical. One day that might even be taken a step further by haptic feedback devices. For now, though, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Facebook is gearing up for a major announcement about its VR platforms, and we might hear it before 2021 is out.