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Facebook: VR’s future is bright but ‘full AR’ is the holy grail

AR and VR will one day blend, Facebook believes

Mark Zuckerberg speaks at F8 2017

After spending more than a billion dollars on virtual reality, Facebook seems to have adopted an equal interest in augmented reality, and at least one AR company couldn’t be happier.

“VR will offer increasingly convincing experiences and will gain the ability to capture the real world and bring it into your virtual world, that will let you move around safely, use your keyboard and mouse in VR, pick up your coffee mug, teleport all over the world and share experiences with people all over the planet,” Michael Abrash, Oculus Research’s chief scientist, told a gathering during this week’s annual F8 Facebook conference. “VR will be the most immersive way to interact with the virtual world and it will revolutionize how we work and play.

“Bright as the future of VR is though, and knowing what my team at Oculus Research is working on I’d say it’s very bright indeed. There is one key area that will never be VR’s strong suit: always on, go anywhere, mixed reality. Because no matter how good VR gets, few people will be comfortable socializing with someone’s eyes they can’t see, and social acceptability is an absolute requirement for anything we wear in public.”

See-through augmented reality, delivered with transparent, connected glasses, he said, are the path to full AR. Full AR is something he defined as being able to augment your visual and audio as well as being stylish and comfortable.

That sort of AR, he said, doesn’t exist and may take five, ten years or longer.

Masks for Alien: Covenant (left), Despicable Me 3 (middle) and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (right)

Among the many companies chasing the full AR dream is CastAR. The company plans to release its take on the technology, which isn’t designed for everyday wear, by the end of the year, said Steve Parkis, CEO of CastAR.

“I agree that the future vision [Abrash] was painting — which many of us talk about — is not something we'll achieve immediately,” Parkis said in an email interview. “The place we’re in today is about ‘becoming and iteration.’ It takes bravery to create new companies with ambitious visions. And we're all going to learn a lot along the way. But we have to start somewhere.”

Like Abrash and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Parkis sees things like Pokémon Go and live filters that can augment a video on Instagram and now through Facebook, as a sort of augmented reality.

“Absolutely, in the same way as early punch card computers were part of the adoption story of personal computing,” Parkis said. “It's not terribly productive to look down your nose at technology advancements that captivate consumers’ attention. AR didn't exist a short time ago and a short time from now, it will be very different. But that doesn't mean the early iterations don't count. In the end, consumers decide. It’s our job to captivate and delight them. Stickers and filters and Pikachus have done that — people are excited about AR!”

Parkis added that the interest Facebook is now showing in augmented reality is nothing but positive.

Abrash talks about augmented reality at F8 2017.

“When companies like Facebook, Apple, Snapchat and others are recognizing your area of focus, it's incredibly validating, motivating and exciting,” he said. “Facebook's interest in the AR space will result in proof points and resources. Again, when companies like Facebook validate a vision we've been talking about for a few years now, then resources flow to the sector.”

Parkis said he had a “visceral reaction” to seeing Abrash on stage during the conference talking about Facebook’s vision of an AR future. He saw that vision presenting CastAR’s vision as well.

“We're focused on proving his vision right but his timeline wrong,” Parkis said. “We believe we have a unique approach to getting consumers comfortable with using glasses to see amazing AR experiences that happen on the tabletop in front of you. And we'll be bringing that to market this year.”

The company plans to share more details about its refined CastAR glasses, including the first images and what the company has been up to, in the coming months, he said.

“We're very eager to see market reaction to what we've been working on,” Parkis said. “This is a fascinating and dynamic space.”

Abrash and Facebook now seem to agree with Parkis and CastAR.

“We all know what we really want: AR glasses, and that’s what I’m here to talk about today,” Abrash told the gathering yesterday. “They aren’t here yet, but when they arrive they are going to be one of the great transformational technologies of the next 50 years.”

And while VR and AR currently proceed on separate paths toward a tech future, Abrash in convinced there will be a mixed reality singularity in the next 20 to 30 years that will mash the two technologies together and result in “virtual computing.”

“I think its impact,” he said, “may even be better than personal computing.”