Alicia Berry of Facebook Talks Virtual Reality Trends and Challenges

With the recent news of Facebook Spaces, the newest  virtual reality  app from the social networking site, we caught up with WEAR 2017 speaker, Alicia Berry, Technical Social VR Technical Program Manager at Facebook, (whose team also happens to be the ones that just launched Facebook Spaces) and asked her, her insights into  how VR will change the user experience with Facebook, challenges in creating VR with wearables and some of the biggest trends happening within VR and wearable devices. 

With the recent VR release, how will this change the user experience with Facebook.

Facebook Spaces is a social VR experience that we built as a way for everyone to connect with their Facebook friends and family using the magic of VR. It works with the Oculus Rift headset and Touch controllers. In addition, even for those who don’t have a VR headset, there are still ways to interact with Facebook Spaces: The key feature to do this is the bridge between the real and virtual worlds through our Facebook Messenger product. People can call out of and into a Facebook Space, interacting with virtual versions of their friends and family.


What were some of the challenges in creating VR for Facebook?

One the most difficult challenges was determining what to offer in terms of artwork for the virtual representations of people. Our guiding principle was to be able to represent “your authentic self.” At the same time, we needed to balance the artistic stylization of people in parallel with providing components that would make people stand out in a crowd. To do this, we hand-built each of the avatars and then edited them multiple times to make sure they put the people using Facebook Spaces in a position of delight.

While the first results of this were positive, we know we have a long way to go. We’ll be adding additional options to help people represent themselves over the life of the product, and we look forward to seeing broad arrays people’s authentic selves.


What are some of the challenges with VR and wearables?

Presently, there aren’t strong integrations between VR and wearables. The closest the market has come to this are exercise gear and a number of haptic feedback gloves. One of the key issues over the coming years is how to integrate with wide variety of VR platforms, and the time it takes to develop an application with just one of them.

Why do you think VR is trending up, so quickly, now?

We’re at a time where all the pieces of VR are in place, we just need to assemble them. One important component to a great social VR experience is having a rich variety of 360 content to experience together. Luckily, Facebook is busy creating cameras and applications for 360 video capture and 360 editing. Our hope is that these products and others can fill the content pipeline for interactive, synchronous co-browsing of 360 content. VR has been around for over 20 years, what improved recently, in addition to the new ability to capture solid 360 media, is the rapid rise of GPU capability of video cards and the ubiquity of broadband internet. This, in parallel with the drop in prices for consumer VR hardware like the Rift in addition to the advent of elegant hand controllers like Oculus Touch.

All of these things need to evolve together to make a great VR experience, and in just the past year, we’re just scratching the surface of the applications to this new computing platform, with people as the main focus. It’s an awesome time!


What are some of the trends that we will see with VR and wearables?

I think the key integrations of VR and wearables will be motion capture for application animation input and haptic feedback back to people, initially…What would be incredibly immersive would be thermal feedback—temperature changes in response to VR stimulus. Even further in the future, wearables could provide tension or weight feedback for virtual exercise. There are so many potential applications between wearables, VR/AR. I look forward to the creativity that almost certainly will ensue over the next few years.

What is similar between VR and wearables is the ability to add the third dimension of time when developing products. In the past, wearables satisfied a discreet need, and the KPI was generally sales. Now, in both VR and wearables, the KPI is time in item or time in application. In addition, through developments in tracking, another KPI can be: time spent with others.


What are you most looking forward to hearing at WEAR 2017?

One of my favorite parts of events like WEAR 2017 is chatting with people who have amazing in-depth industry experience in an industry I don’t know a lot about. Finding the intersection of two technologies helps both parties see new ways of approaching problems and very often result in true innovation. 

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