Social networks contain multitudes. One day you’re writing about internal dissent over the company’s ability to uproot influence campaigns and election interference; the very next, you’re watching a live stream of the same company’s foray into virtual reality helmets and designer mixed reality glasses. At a company with as many interests as Facebook has, different days call for different kinds of stories. And so today’s edition will be a lot different from yesterday’s.
This is all a roundabout way of saying that I talked to Mark Zuckerberg about Facebook Connect. The event, which was previously called Oculus Connect, gives the company an annual opportunity to discuss the latest advances in next-generation computing platforms. Facebook has sometimes faced doubts over why a social network would invest so much time and money into a hardware project with no uncertain payoff. But a summer of escalated tensions with Apple have helped to make the case: if you want to control your own destiny, you have to own your platform.
For those who haven’t been paying close attention to Oculus and what the company now calls Facebook Reality Labs, some background is in order. Facebook isn’t the only big company working on advanced headset computers — Apple, Google, and Snap are also investing billions in research and development. But with the Oculus Quest, the standalone headset that Facebook introduced last year, it arguably became the market leader in VR — the company furthest along in developing a base of users and a developer platform for a standalone headset. (Sony also makes a popular headset, but you’ll need a PlayStation to use it.)
Today Facebook announced Quest 2, which is $100 cheaper than its predecessor at $299 and less heavy to boot. The Verge’s Adi Robertson really liked it, calling it “the new default for VR, if you’re OK with Facebook.” Facebook hasn’t disclosed sales numbers for the Quest, but Zuckerberg said the company sold as many of them as the company could make. Andrew “Boz” Bosworth, who leads the company’s hardware projects, told me the Quest 2 represented a significant leap forward.
“We’re doing something that I think is honestly totally nuts and awesome,” he said. “Which is taking a product that is successful — exceeding dramatically our expectations— and just retiring it way prematurely and replacing it with a better, cheaper thing. I don’t know how many times in my career I will be able to do this. It might just be one, but I’m pumped about it.”
With augmented reality, Facebook is a few steps behind. Snap released the first generation of Spectacles in 2016; Facebook won’t have a product on the market this year. But the company says its first effort at consumer “smart glasses” will arrive next year. And in the meantime, it announced Project Aria — a research prototype for more full-featured augmented reality hardware that will soon be given to Facebook employees and contractors to begin testing.
Taken together, the projects may represent Facebook’s single biggest bet on what the future may look like. And like other projects with global ambitions, it will also invite new scrutiny over privacy, data security, content moderation, and more. I talked with Zuckerberg about how he’s using VR, how Facebook will manage privacy risks, and why he doesn’t want to build “an Apple Watch for your face.”
Mark Zuckerberg: VR, I think is well on its way. We had this milestone in our mind that first we needed to get the technology to the place where you could have a standalone headset, it could be portable, it could be high quality — do the tracking and all that. And Quest was the big milestone on that. Then, from an ecosystem perspective, we believed that if we get to 10 million units active, then that’s kind of a critical magic number.
At that point, you have a self-sustaining ecosystem. That’s the next big push: how do we get the technology to be more accessible to more people? A big part of that was driving it to be more affordable, and making it more portable. … And we’re not at 10 million yet, but I’m optimistic that over the next few years, we’ll get there. And that will really be a new stage of VR.
Obviously, the form factor still has a lot that you want to work on. It’s a little bit clunky today.
And what about AR glasses?
AR is just going to be a lot harder. I really don’t think that AR is going to be good until you get normal-looking glasses that can project holograms into the world. And now, glasses range from thin to pretty thick frames. I don’t think we’re anywhere near getting all the electronics that you would need to get into a thin frame. But the hope would be that you can get it into more normal-looking glasses in the first part of this decade or the first half of this decade.
And that will be challenging, and people will take different approaches to getting that to work. The biggest shortcut that a lot of folks are trying to take is basically trying to not do full holograms in the world, and just show some heads-up information. I call that “putting an Apple Watch on your face.”
I don’t personally find that particularly compelling. It’s not a product that we’re particularly excited about making. Maybe someone else will make it. It doesn’t fit the kind of social use cases that we primarily care about.
If not an “Apple watch on your face,” then what is the exciting potential use for these glasses?
The thing that excites me about virtual and augmented reality is the feeling of presence. The idea that this is the first computing platform in the history of computing, where you really feel like you’re there with another person. Right?
Delivering a sense of presence is the thing that I care about. And VR and AR are going to be the technologies that do that. VR by fully immersing you in a new environment, and AR by bringing people into your existing environment through holograms. So in the future, instead of a video chat, I’ll just be sitting on my couch and your hologram can just appear on the couch next to me, or I can hologram into your house. And part of why that’s going to be a lot better than video chat is that then we’ll be able to have virtual objects that we can interact with together. If we want to play a game of cards, I can have a deck of cards.
If you think about the way Spotify gave us access to the back catalogue of music, VR is going to give us access to the back catalogue of objects that we can look at or that we can interact with — with other people, anywhere that we go. Which is something that’s going to be different experience than the kind of 2D video chat that we have today.
That’s the kind of stuff that makes me excited about this. I feel like we’ve been developing social software in these boxes that are defined by other platforms for my whole life, and the whole existence of our company. And I’m excited to be able to break out of some, and find a space where you can interact in a more natural way.
To what extent has the pandemic changed your thinking about VR? Do you have a different sense of what’s possible, or what might be more urgent than before?
So I definitely think COVID has shifted my outlook on some of this. For one, the concept of remote presence with video is now much more mainstream than it was before. Before it was kind of a work tool that sometimes people used when they had to. But now like everyone’s on it all the time. So that notion of wanting to be present remotely with people, I think is much more mainstream now — through video, not necessarily through AR and VR.
A lot of people think that AR is the thing that matters, and VR is this niche, smaller thing. My outlook on that has shifted. I actually think VR is going to be quite important for people, too. And over the next few years, I think it’s going to just grow significantly faster.
So I’ve always been focused on both. But I think I’m maybe even a little more optimistic at this point than I was before seeing how people use it during lockdowns.
With Project Aria, you’re putting cameras on people’s faces. There was a big debate over the ethics of that when Google Glass first came out, but a long time has passed since then. How are you thinking about wading into that debate?
One of the things that I’ve learned over the last several years is that you don’t want to wait until you have issues to be discussing how you want to address them. And not just internally — having a social conversation publicly about how society thinks these things should be addressed. Because those conversations take a while to work through, and with hardware development the cycles are long. We’re mapping out the hardware that we’re going to be shipping in 2024 now. So if some issue comes up, it’s gonna be a long time before you can you can fully address those things
I know there are a ton of questions. If you ask a lot of people what they want glasses to be able to do, one of the canonical things that people will say is they would want to be able to go into a room with a lot of other people and have the glasses tell them who the people are. And maybe you want that — but that goes directly into all the questions about facial recognition, biometrics, and what information you should be able to have access to. These are real questions. It’s not simple or straightforward what the answer’s going to be.
I think just starting to have these conversations now, so that by the time the technology is ready, we can at least have some early consensus on how to approach this — I think that’s just incredibly important.