What Is Up Facebook’s Virtual Sleeve?

by Guy Frum

Facebook on the cusp of massive immersive tech release

While most companies were battening down the hatches and attempting to avoid bankruptcy in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mark Zuckerberg and the powers of be at Facebook were powering forward into new realms of interaction, spending $18.45 billion - the equivalent of 21% of the company’s revenue - on research and development centered around its augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) sectors inside Facebook Reality Labs. During its Q3 FY2020 earnings call, the company announced its R&D department had grown 34%, and during 2020 as a whole, Facebook was granted a staggering 938 new patents. 

What Is Up Facebook’s Virtual Sleeve?

As of March 2021, Facebook had close to 10,000 employees working on AR and VR devices, close to 20% of the company’s entire worldwide workforce. Just four years ago, that percentage was around 5%. Facebook produced the Oculus Rift-style tethered headsets in those four years, releasing Oculus Quest and Quest 2, but has since shifted its VR focus away from Oculus. Based on interviews with Zuckerberg, Facebook is shifting its focus from completely new product lines to building AR/VR technology on top of its own technology and other existing platforms to rapidly bridge the gap between online and offline interactions. Three areas of note:

  • More realistic digital avatars: There’s a big difference between the avatars that gamers and VR/AR users are able to create at present and say, what we’ve all seen on screen in “Ready Player One.” Zuckerberg says a new generation of VR avatar generation technology will be released later in 2021 with the most realistic versions yet, thanks to more potent sensors. His ultimate goal is to reach the point where, “you can make real authentic eye contact with someone and have real expressions that get reflected on your avatar.”
  • VR Advertising: The average user might think it’s the worst idea of all time, but for companies trying to figure out how to monetize immersive technology, it is at the top of the watch list. In June 2021, Facebook authorized a limited test of advertisements inside three of its Oculus Quest apps. As controversial as Facebook’s advertisements have been over the years, there is much interest in how the company will use the enormous amount of information that the headsets collect from your surroundings to customize said advertising. The sensors can take pictures of your surroundings, record your voice via the microphone, and even read your eye line to see what you’re looking at, which could theoretically let Facebook place ads precisely where you are most likely to be looking.
  • AR glasses with sound augmentation: Facebook Reality Labs’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash and his team are promoting “perceptual superpowers” - an AR system that will figure out what you are trying to hear in your environment, amplify it and dampen the background noise around it. So the days of struggling to have a conversation with the person next to you in a crowded bar might soon be over.

Final Thoughts

AR/VR is clearly a personal passion of Zuckerberg’s, which means he’s not going to stop until he has achieved what he wants. Like fellow billionaires Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson, who recently both flew above the Earth’s surface in prototype commercial spacecraft, Zuckerberg has a personal stake in this one, telling shareholders, “This is going to unlock the types of social experiences I’ve dreamed about building since I was a kid, and it’s what we’re building towards at Facebook Reality Labs.”