The Oculus Quest (soon to be Meta Quest) started as a head-mounted game console, but now its parent company Facebook (renamed Meta) is trying to push the platform further by connecting with you across VR headsets, AR headsets, metaverse avatars and in other ways. The timing for the annual VR- and AR-focused Facebook Connect conference couldn’t be worse, with the swell of fresh allegations that Facebook puts profit over the safety of its users. Still, the company forged ahead this week, talking up new mixed-reality tools and teasing next-gen hardware.
While the Quest never felt like that much a part of Facebook — other than infamously requiring a Facebook login — future updates that add 2D apps could make it seem more like a phone or tablet. It’s also adding work account support and new mixed-reality tools for blending virtual objects with the real world. Meanwhile, the company is trying to push forward on phone-based AR tools that collect and integrate more real-world data. Broadly hinted at, more advanced smart glasses are still in development. The possibilities are intriguing, but the privacy concerns are numerous, as well as the questions on how these disparate pieces will even fit together.
Mark Zuckerberg, appearing in a Zoom call with reporters ahead of the company’s Connect keynote Thursday, addressed the company’s latest VR and AR news timing in relation to release of the Facebook Papers: “Some people are going to say that this isn’t really a time that we should be focused on the future. Up front, I just want to acknowledge that there are clearly important issues to be working on in the present, and we’re taking that very seriously,” Zuckerberg said. “But at the same time, the reality is, there are always going to be issues. And for some people, they may have the view that there’s never really a great time to focus on the future. From my perspective, I think we’re here to create things. And we believe that we can do this and that technology can make things better.”
The company’s speed of VR and AR progress in the face of so many problems is exactly what makes the announcements concerning. Yet Facebook (or Meta) also seems driven to continue pushing forward in making its VR and AR platforms feel essential, especially as competition from Microsoft and others heats up. The company’s latest metaverse-based focus, first discussed by Mark Zuckerberg in a conversation with CNET back in May, is an acknowledgement that the world can’t just operate through VR headsets and smart glasses.
And yet, how can a metaverse that’s cross-platform even work smoothly when phone operating systems and computers all run different types of software? Zuckerberg addressed this question in a roundabout way: “One of the things that I’ve sort of lamented over the last several years is that I do think, all of our computing today, these platforms are designed to run apps, not people. It’s not like you as a person can easily teleport between experiences and bring all your stuff,” Zuckerberg said. “And I do think there’s an opportunity to do that differently going forward.”
That seems to mean adding ways for avatars (still cartoonish, but getting slowly more detailed, with legs and feet in the latest versions) to jump into virtual meeting rooms or games. But there’s still a big disconnect between Facebook/Meta’s VR tools and its AR tools.
Oculus Quest 2 adds a lot of work things
The Oculus Quest 2 is getting a new home hub called Horizon Home, which may be a way for the VR OS to start shifting toward Facebook’s avatar-centric ecosystem. Invites to people for games and meetings will show up as links that pop into Facebook, like Zoom links. (All the Quest core VR app experiences are being rebranded as Horizon-related).
2D web apps are also coming to the Quest, which will pop up like app panes from the VR home screen. Facebook’s starting with Facebook, Instagram, Smartsheet, Spike, Dropbox and Slack — and a few other apps, including Pluto, are said to be coming. Previously, the Quest had to lean on its built-in web browser or PC-connected virtual monitor apps for most applike experiences.
Facebook is also building work account logins into its Quest OS, which were only available before on specifically outfitted commercial versions of the device. The work login feature will mean you don’t have to use a Facebook login, and will function with single sign-on and IDP account management tools. This new feature is slowly rolling out in a limited test this year, but it’s going to be a long while before it becomes mainstream: The tools won’t even fully launch until 2023.
Facebook’s metaverse end goal isn’t so much VR as a pair of advanced AR and VR smart glasses, but without those ready, the company’s working to evolve the Quest 2 into more of a mixed-reality tool. New developer tools called the Presence Platform will use AI and the Quest 2 cameras to recognize rooms and what’s in them, and layer in virtual objects along with hand tracking and voice recognition. These tools have all existed on the Quest 2 already in various forms, but Facebook is looking to synthesize them into ways that app developers could model AR on a $300 headset.
What does that mean for Oculus Quest as a gaming platform? Except for promises of better cloud saves and an easier way to connect with friends and join into group games, the focus has been on helping the Quest 2 do things it currently can’t. A lot of that doesn’t involve games, although the instant-connect focus of the new Quest multiplayer features appears to help with the currently awkward method of gathering friends into shared VR sessions.
Phone AR adds spatial anchors, marketplace and iOS creative app
At the same time, Facebook’s rolling out new AR tools on phones, a lot of them following a similar script to efforts by other AR-focused companies like Niantic, Snapchat, Google, Apple and Microsoft. This includes adding location-aware anchors (for things like phone-based scavenger hunts, or maybe pop-up location-aware events), adding hand tracking and body tracking for AR effects and promising a deeper repository of 3D objects, with a plan to create a marketplace for 3D assets that will eventually branch from AR to Facebook’s Horizon-branded metaverse in VR.
There’s also a new iPhone app in development, called Polar, that will let nonprogrammers create facial filter effects that can be virally shared quickly to Facebook and Instagram. That’s also coming later this year.
But, these AR tools are still based on the phone (and Facebook Portal), while Facebook’s closest product to smart glasses for now is the display-free but camera-equipped Ray-Ban Stories sunglasses, released in September.
If there’s a theme of all these announcements, it’s tendrils. Facebook started off by winning people over in VR with gaming, but the mission from here on is metaverse-focused. The connection from one device to another, or one service to another, is more important to Facebook now than any one device. The real question is, how many people will be okay with letting Facebook be the doorway to all these worlds?
Facebook plans for its metaverse apps to work across other platforms and hardware, through APIs that allow programs to talk to each other, according to Andrew Bosworth, the company’s head of VR and AR, and future CTO. Apps that use Facebook’s Horizon-based avatar tech will probably be limited to the company’s hardware or software, however.
And how much can digital goods or identity travel? That sounds in flux, too. “For me, the watchword of the metaverse is continuity, the feeling that when you go from one place to another place, there are some things that allow your identity to come with you,” Bosworth said in a Zoom chat that was, notably, not in a VR headset this time. Bosworth sees digital goods and friends, as well as identity as an avatar, as important virtual possessions within apps and devices. But not everything may come with you across platforms, he notes. How that will get worked out still remains to be seen, too.