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Major Takeaways:

  • Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has described virtual reality as a “social platform” of the future – a new way for people to interact with each other.
  • Zuckerberg will appear at a press conference before the Mobile World Congress, announcing a new Facebook team, led by designers Daniel James and Michael Booth, charged with building “social apps” for the Oculus.
  • “Computing shouldn’t be this thing where you pull up a webpage or some 2-D thing,” [Zuckerberg] thought. “You should physically feel like you’re going to a place.”

From the article:

Earlier this month, the prime minister of Singapore visited Facebook’s new Menlo Park HQ, and he too dropped into the virtual-reality room near Zuckerberg’s office so he could strap on the Oculus Rift. But the prime minister of Singapore was more interested in the virtual dinosaurs. As Zuckerberg describes his Oculus-powered ping pong match with Indonesian President Joko Widodo, his point is that the two of them spent twenty minutes in a virtual world doing something together.

“What people care about,” Zuckerberg says, sitting just down the hall from Facebook’s VR room, “is interacting with another person.”

Ever since Facebook acquired Oculus in the spring of 2014, Zuckerberg has described virtual reality as a “social platform” of the future—as the way we’ll not only play games and watch movies, but actually interact with each other. “We’re making a long-term bet that immersive virtual and augmented reality will become a part of people’s daily lives,” he told reporters the day Facebook announced the $2 billion deal, saying it had the potential to be the “most social platform ever.” That day, these claims seemed a bit of a stretch. I was among the skeptics. But over the last two years, the VR landscape has shifted, moving at least a little closer to the world Zuckerberg has long envisioned…

…Zuckerberg’s vision now seems closer to reality because so many other tech giants have embraced much the same idea. In October 2014, Google led a $500 million investment in the augmented-reality startup Magic Leap, a cousin of Oculus-style virtual reality. The following January, Microsoft unveiled its ownaugmented reality headset, the Hololens. All the while, Google was building its own VR effort from scratch, not only offering a cardboard headset that could deliver VR via your smartphone, but secretly building more advanced hardware. And now, it seems, Apple is doing much the same. “This is a thing that people were laughing at two years ago,” Zuckerberg says.

This morning, in Barcelona, just before the annual Mobile World Congress, Zuckerberg will appear at a big press event organized by hardware maker Samsung, whose Gear VR headset is based on Oculus technology. Among other things, he’ll announce that a new Facebook team, led by designers Daniel James and Michael Booth, will start building “social apps” for the Oculus. He declines to say what these apps might look like. “The big new thing is that we’re doing it,” he says. And since we’re still waiting for the Oculus itself to reach the market, there’s reason to wonder how important this effort will really be in the near to medium-term. But those words—social apps for virtual reality—don’t sound quite as strange as they did back in 2014.

Chris Dixon, a partner with the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, was an early investor in Oculus, and even he was surprised that Facebook swooped in for the startup when it did. “When we invested, that was not our expectation,” he says. “It wasn’t an area that was hot.” Now the landscape has shifted to the point where he too sees VR as the next big “platform.” “Once the prices come down and the quality goes up and developers get hold of it and are able to be creative and create all sorts of new things,” he says, “we’ll discover that it’s for a lot more than just games.”…

…The big question that remains is how social VR will dovetail with the rest of Facebook. The company is already adding 360-degree videos into the Facebook News Feed, and Zuckerberg sees this as a step towards virtual reality. Indeed, you can watch them with the Gear VR. But these videos don’t require a headset that wraps around your eyes. Virtual reality does. It shuts you off from the rest of the world, and that doesn’t necessarily jibe with Facebook, which is really something you use on a phone, while you’re doing other stuff—while you’re riding on a train to work or waiting for someone to meet you for dinner.

Zuckerberg doesn’t quite know how these two paradigms will meld. Or if he does, he’s not letting on. But the end game, he says, is a pair of super-lightweight eye glasses that can instantly shift you from the virtual world to the real world—and back again. These could immerse you in virtual reality or they could add digital stuff to what you see in the real world, augmented reality-style. Using these glasses, you could play virtual chess with someone on the other side of the world, he says. Or you could look at still photos someone just sent you on Facebook.

Today, that seems a stretch. At this point, lightweight digital glasses—think: Google Glass—still look like a failure. But in a couple of years, this will all sound a lot more real.

Head over to WIRED to see the full scoop.