Oculus + Facebook = social virtual, or a stepping stone?

April 28, 2014

About a 7 min. read

I’ve made no secret that I’m not optimistic about the prospect for VR’s success as a consumer product, this time ‘round, any more than I thought it was going to work for consumers last time ‘round (i.e., the 80’s and 90’s, when I first played with it).  So, while I have some dev kits (to hack for AR!) and have an Oculus “VR” sticker on my care (because it’s weird), I was definitely in the camp of folks dumbfounded when Facebook bought Oculus.

I’ve been thinking about it since then, though, as I’ve watched people write about their view (hope?) that Facebook’s goal is to create a massive social virtual world building on top of what Oculus is doing (Avi Bar-Zeev has some links and a summary here, along with some other thoughts).

And while I don’t buy the VR vision, I do see an exciting path to the Metaverse, where VR is just a step along the way.

Again:  the problem I have with that “FB+Oculus=Metaverse” vision is that I think it is unlikely that VR will succeed as an interface for a massive social virtual world, even more unlikely than as an interface for hard-core games.  The problem with SecondLife and Sony Home and other social virtual worlds is not the lack of a head-worn display for viewing them!  (Perhaps, as with many new technologies, if someone links VR and a 3D virtual porn world, they might have a winner, but I’m thinking that Facebook is not going to go there.)

What I’d like to see, instead, is the future_ Facebook Metaverse_ be just one part of a giant collection of Mirror Worlds, linking our real physical environment to a multitude of virtual worlds.  The key, of course, is that these worlds are anchored in the real world.  We experimented with this idea a half dozen years ago, in a variety of ways.  While our work is anchored in the real work, in most of our projects we treated the virtual world as the primary structuring metaphor:  since there are no limits to the virtual world, allowing it’s infinite space to link back to our limited reality seems reasonable.

Our first project was creating an AR interface to SecondLife, modifying the client so that parts of the virtual world could be aligned with the real world.  In this image, you can see a model of part of our lab in SL (on the left), and an AR view of the same space (with an SL avatar in it) on the right.

AR Second Life. On the left, a model of a part of the lab in SecondLife. On the right, the AR experience.

The structure of SecondLife led us to a model were users explicitly aligned regions of the two worlds, which is one important metaphor:  mirror what happens in both the physical and virtual worlds over into the other.  An avatar walks into the area in SL, they appear in the AR view.  Someone walks into the physical room, and their avatar appears in the virtual world (we didn’t do that here, due to limits of SL).  Here’s a video of the project:

But there are other interesting metaphors we didn’t get a chance to explore;  ideas like portals between worlds, or other non-linear relationships between the two worlds.  And, of course, there was only one SL world:  it would be very interesting to explore multiple parallel virtual worlds (a true multiverse).

The biggest limitation, though, was that it was particularly expensive to do anything big with SecondLife:  a single island is only 256m square, and cost a lot of money per year to “own” (about $3600 per year back then!).    Doing something on the scale of our campus would have been prohibitively expensive.  To explore this kind of scale, we created a full-scale “mirror world” of our campus (using the same models that would eventually be used in Georgia Tech’s GT 3D app).

In the desktop virtual interface (on the right below) you could wander around the 3D campus and  explore and interact with a mashup of 2D and 3D “content” pinned to the world.  The same content was available in an AR interface (on the left below, shown over a panoramic photograph).

Mirror Worlds. AR on the left, VR on the right.

The idea was to have a 1-1 scale multiuser virtual environment where people shared a hybrid space together, with avatars showing up in one space to represent the occupants of the other.  Here’s a video of that prototype:

These projects led us to explore how OpenWonderland virtual environment (then Sun’s Wonderland) could serve as the organizing metaphor for a distributed group of knowledge workers.  Wonderland was designed to let people work together in a 3D world, and tried to address many of the problems experienced by people trying to do “work” in impoverished virtual worlds like SecondLife.  Our research was aimed at creating mixed-reality portals into these 3D worlds and explore what would happen if we positioned them throughout an office environment (e.g., on multiple large displays in instrumented meeting rooms, break rooms, or in individual offices), allowing distributed teams to work together in new ways.

While the portals showed one view into a virtual world, individuals could use laptop or tablet interfaces to work on documents or otherwise interact with participants in the space.  Everyone had an avatar in the 3D world, regardless of where they were, so the feeling of being together, no matter how the team was distributed, was powerful.

One prototype of our portal interface (where the two avatars are working with Alex Hill, the lead researcher on the project, at the whiteboard) is shown here:

Clearboard using Wonderland.

(We were just starting to explore how to use this technology, when Sun went out of business, and our focus shifted in new directions:  in the academy, you can only work on big projects if you can fund them!).

I still think the idea of using virtual worlds as a structuring mechanism for distributed collaborations and experiences of all kinds is very exciting.  While working on this project, it seemed clear that this was the germ of an idea that could lead to powerful ways for support heterogeneous experiences of many kinds, from work to education to games to general social interactions.

Which brings me back to Facebook and Oculus.  While I’m not enthusiastic about the idea of a purely virtual Metaverse, I love the idea of mixing 3D virtual worlds with the real world in different ways, and using it to bring people together.  I imagine a fully interactive 3D whiteboard like the one shown above, at the front of a lecture hall, bringing remote students into the classroom as first-class participants. Or sharing a wall of my living room with family members far away, not through the awkwardness of a simple video stream, but rather by having these distributed spaces connected through portals into a huge shared virtual world in all kinds of different ways.

My hope is that by mediating these connections through virtual worlds, we can add structure and control to participants, while create metaphors that respect privacy while giving opportunities for serendipity and playful encounters!

This is where I hope Facebook and Oculus move toward …

Oculus + Facebook = social virtual, or a stepping stone? - April 28, 2014 - Blair MacIntyre