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Facebook Reality Labs’ Vision of the Future: ‘Tools that Help People Feel Connected’

VR and AR will converge to combine the real and virtual, as Facebook Reality Labs researchers, developers, and engineers aim to change how we see the world.

Facebook hosted its seventh annual AR/VR conference virtually last week, but this time with a new name, “Facebook Connect,” to better reflect a new, broader scope; and hosted by Facebook Reality Labs (FRL), the company’s new combined AR/VR team. In his keynote, Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced the next-generation all-in-one VR device, Oculus Quest 2, which is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 Platform processor and 6GB of memory.

Zuckerberg expounded on Facebook’s vision for Facebook Reality Labs and the latest innovations from their team and developer community, explaining “to build the next computing platform, to deliver that sense of presence and immersion, and to make it the best platform for connecting with people you care about… increasingly requires us to extend beyond just out Oculus virtual reality product lines to include a lot more of the work we’re doing, including augmented reality.”

Facebook officially rebranded its AR/VR team to Facebook Reality Labs (FRL) in August. Prior to that, “Facebook Reality Labs” was the name given to the company’s AR/VR research division, which was initially known as “Oculus Research.”

Augmented reality (AR) is an interactive experience that blends a real-world environment and a digital environment and can be used to enhance natural environments or situations and offer perceptually enriched experiences. AR systems generally incorporate three basic features: a combination of real and virtual worlds, real-time interaction, and accurate 3D registration of virtual and real objects.

As an immersive addition to reality, AR alters the user’s ongoing perception of a real-world environment, whereas virtual reality (VR) completely replaces the perceived real-world environment with a simulated one. As its name implies, VR is a simulated experience that can either be similar to or very different from the real world.

“I am deeply convinced that augmented and virtual reality will be the primary way we work, play, and connect for the next 50 years, just as personal computers and smartphones have changed the world for the last 45 years and counting,” wrote FRL Chief Scientist Michael Abrash in a March blog post.

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Facebook’s standalone Oculus Quest 2 VR headset weighs 503 grams and will sell from US$299

The Emerging Market

AR and VR technologies’ digital immersive user experience has applications in various industry verticals for entertainment and business purposes. According to a global market report from VynZ Research, the global AR and VR market is expected to reach US$161 billion by 2025 — a 48.8 percent compound annual growth rate from 2020.

The strong market growth is being driven by the factors such as increasing responsiveness regarding the technology, rapid acceptance of AR and VR use among various industry domains, and the amalgamation of AR and VR to develop a mixed reality that can be implemented in many prospective applications, according to the report.

In recent years, technological development and the strong focus of major tech players like Facebook on AR and VR systems have been key in the development of the AR and VR market. The rapid growth in the adoption of tablet computers and smartphones has brought AR and VR technologies to education, gaming, e-commerce, architecture, furnishing, and other industries in a bustling global AR and VR marketplace.

Facebook’s Ambition

Facebook has been focusing on the development of new tools in the field of AR and VR for years and is investing heavily in these areas. The company currently operates five AR/VR research facilities.

In 2014, Facebook acquired the virtual reality pioneer Oculus for US$2 billion — signalling its ambitions to bring VR to the masses. By encouraging Oculus users to connect to their Facebook profiles, the company not only blended its Oculus VR platform with Facebook features, including live streaming VR content to Facebook, VR meet-ups as Facebook events, and VR integration with Messenger, but also leveraged its advertising tools to grow the Oculus platform.

In 2017, the company introduced the Facebook camera to make photo and video sharing more expressive with masks, frames, interactive filters, and fresh art from featured guests. The release of the Camera Effects Platform (CEP) turned smartphone cameras into the first AR platform for developers and artists.

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With CEP came the Facebook AR experience-authoring tool AR Studio, which enabled users to build their own AR experiences with animated frames, masks, and interactive effects that respond to motion and interactions during live broadcasts. AR Studio combined various computer vision algorithms, sensor data and user data to bring these tailored experiences to life.

Facebook AR Studio

Facebook’s commitment to AR/VR has spawned a number of breakthrough technologies and reached industries ranging from entertainment and gaming to education and beyond. In addition to its Oculus headsets, Facebook launched the “Spark AR Studio,” which enables creators to publish, manage, track and understand the performance of their AR effects across Facebook’s family of apps and devices. More than 400,000 creators from over 190 countries have published Spark AR effects for Facebook and Instagram, and they’ve published over 1.2 million AR effects to date.

The New Facebook Reality Labs

“Our research teams have helped establish Facebook Reality Labs as a pioneer in the AR/VR space as we work to deliver the next computing platform,” said Head of Facebook Reality Labs Andrew Bosworth in the FRL announcement.

Bosworth said FRL is building the entire stack, including hardware and software, to “enable depth of connection through social presence — the feeling that you’re right there with another person and sharing the same space, regardless of physical distance.”

In FRL’s vision, while VR and AR seem like distinct experiences today, they’ll converge over time and eventually allow users to freely combine real and virtual worlds. This is what FRL will be focusing on with its growing, world-class team of researchers, developers, and engineers.

In March 2019, the team that would become FRL launched an Inside Facebook Reality Labs blog series detailing their lab work. “There are many people who are skeptical about AR and VR, and we hope to change that perception by sharing why we believe these platforms are in fact on the path to changing the world,” Abrash wrote in an introduction post.

In each post, the team highlighted a different FRL team that’s “trailblazing” a new technology. The first post described the Codec Avatar research done by the FRL Pittsburgh team, which produced some very compelling real-time avatars.

Facebook’s newest VR headset Oculus Quest 2 will sell from only US$299 (64GB model) and will ship starting October 13. Meanwhile, there’s currently no timeline for Facebook AR products, although there is a new research effort called Project Aria, which involves a sensor-filled and compute-packed research device that is worn like regular glasses and designed to help FRL researchers “figure out how AR can work in the real world.” A Project Aria partnership with Carnegie Mellon University’s Cognitive Assistance Laboratory will build 3D maps of museums and airports that may benefit people with visual impairments.

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To design and build glasses flexible enough to work for many face shapes and sizes and create the software to support them, FRL will need to come up with systems to enhance audio and visual input, contextualized AI, and a lightweight frame to house it all. “Many of the technologies needed to deliver on the promise of AR glasses don’t exist yet — and our team is hard at work to make them a reality,” says Bosworth.

At last week’s Connect event, Facebook also announced a multi-year partnership with luxury eyewear maker EssilorLuxottica that aims to bring Ray-Ban branded smart glasses to the market in 2021.


Reporter: Yuan Yuan | Editor: Michael Sarazen


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