Facebook has long argued that virtual reality headsets are a social tool, meant to connect people to their communities. The social networking giant on Monday presented a prototype it imagines could make headway on this quest — a headset that eerily projects the wearer’s face on the outside of the gadget, so people nearby can see their eye movements.
The result is not so consumer-friendly and shows hiccups in Facebook’s desire to transform VR.
At a virtual tech conference known as ACM SIGGRAPH, Nathan Matsuda, a researcher at Facebook Reality Labs, talked in detail about “reverse pass-through VR” technology, what the firm calls a framework for bolstering “seamless social connection between real and virtual worlds. “
“Without reverse pass through, you just be looking at the blank front of the headset. But with this system in place, I can hold a conversation with natural eye contact and other social cues that are carried by the part of my face that would normally be obscured,” said Matsuda, while donning the gadget in a video at SIGGRAPH.
Truly immersive VR experiences transport people to other places — both reality-based, like augmented reality, and wholly simulated. But wearing clunky headsets in social settings with friends or at the office is awkward. Some types of headsets feature tools allowing wearers to see the outside world, but people close by, without a headset, are disconnected from the person using VR.
Facebook’s proposed solution relies on eye-tracking cameras placed inside the headset to capture the user’s eye movements; these images are projected on the outside of the device to mirror what the wearer is doing. These light-field displays show the image with perspective and depth, creating an illusion that the digitized eyes are part of the wearer’s face.
In theory, the tech allows the wearer to make eye contact with people outside the virtual environment. It’s designed to offer direction accuracy too, so if your eyes look to the left, the replicated eyes should look left as well, the firm says.
But the prototype looks frighteningly unnatural. In a demo shown at the conference, the projected eye movements were off-kilter: One eye would blink, and the other one wouldn’t. Or both would blink but at different rates. The device connected to a complex web of circuitry that no one would have in their homes. The external image quality was glaringly low.
The face-projecting tech may never become a consumer-ready product. The reality lab’s chief scientist Michael Abrash admits he didn’t think there the idea had much merit. “My first reaction was that it was kind of a goofy idea, a novelty at best,” Abrash wrote in a blog post.
Facebook also acknowledged the device’s technical limitations.
“We’d also like the displays to be higher resolution, have wider color gamut, higher brightness and higher contrast, so that they can operate in a wider range of environments,” said Matsuda.
Even without the uncanny eye projections, people aren’t clamoring to buy the virtual reality headsets, which have largely failed to grab hold of the masses. Google discontinued its VR program in 2020 due to slow adoption and growth in the area is projected to stagnate between 2021 and 2023, according to the research company eMarketer.
Still, prices have come down in recent years. Facebook’s latest Oculus Quest 2 is set to sell for $299 online later in August, $100 cheaper than the original.
The new device demonstrates that Facebook thinks the future of VR lies in nimble engineering and interactive design. Its Oculus Quest gaming headset has gotten slimmer and lighter to wear over time. And the addition of something like reverse pass through, “can make VR devices look more and more like a standard pair of glasses,” Matsuda said.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg purchased the Oculus VR start-up in 2014 ago for $2 billion, stating at the time: “Oculus has the chance to create the most social platform ever, and change the way we work, play and communicate.”
Part of the reason VR headsets have yet to take the world by storm is that they simply aren’t “sexy,” says Denise White, founder of the immersive tech company Blank XR.
“The sexy design form factor is what we need, at a lower price point and finally people will be like, ‘Oh, I have to have one,’ ” White said.
The project is one in a string of forward-looking VR and AR strategies to come from Facebook. Last month, the company said it would create a product team to work on the “metaverse,” a digital world that multiple people can inhabit together. In March, the company unveiled a wristband that would unlock new ways to interact online.
“I think we will effectively transition from people seeing us as primarily being a social media company to being a metaverse company,” Zuckerberg said in July.
The headset underscores some of the difficulties with making Zuckerberg’s plan come to life.