Facebook is continuing its push to make virtual reality mainstream.
During the company’s annual Oculus Connect developer conference this week, the social networking giant unveiled its new $200 Oculus Go VR headset that, unlike many rivals, doesn’t require a personal computer or smartphone to operate.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pitched the new headset as the “sweet spot” between the company’s $400 Rift headset and the mobile phone-powered Gear VR headset that Facebook sells in partnership with Samsung. Facebook hopes the cheaper headset will convince more people to try virtual reality.
In this edited interview with Fortune, Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer discusses the new Go headsets, his views about VR’s cousin technology, augmented reality, and the impact of relatively new Oculus chief Hugo Barra.
Fortune: Why did it take this long for Facebook to unveil a VR headset that doesn’t need to be tethered to a phone or computer?
Schroepfer: I think that the first couple years of VR is just getting VR to work. Just getting Touch [motion controllers] to work, getting the software to work well on the Gear VR, and getting developers to develop great experiences.
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What will be the quality of the visuals on the new Go standalone headset be like compared to current smartphone-powered headsets?
For the Oculus Go, think of it as a similar experience from a graphics standpoint to the Gear VR, because it’s a similar kind of platform—but with our latest lenses. The sharpness of text and a bunch of other things will be quite a bit improved. But in terms of the graphics, for the developers [building apps] for the Gear VR, this would be similar.
Are you seeing more of a demand from companies interested in VR? [Facebook also debuted a $900 Oculus Rift bundle for businesses that comes with a warranty and customer support.]
We’re seeing a lot of companies wanting to use Rift. There are many different projects where people are saying, “Okay, this is the best tool around to visualize something.” “I’m an architect, I want to share a model of the building with my client.” We can pay people to build one of those toothpick things, print some stuff out, or I can bring them into a 3D model where I can take the roof off and basically be like, “See, this is what the living room looks like.”
I’ve talked to people who build simulators for F1 racing cars and they spend $2 million building it. And then they see this $600 headset or $900 [with accessories] and they say, “Cool, now I can buy a thousand of them for the same cost as one of these.” I think it’s this massively disruptive thing. I’ve heard of people doing this for all sorts of different uses—bus drivers, flight—anything that requires simulation. People have used it for first responder training so they can simulate what it’s like to actually be in, terrible fires like in Napa right now, and being inside a building and rescuing people.
We hoped that more people would build stuff. I’d be worried if we were the only ones. Because the thing that developers ask for more than anything is a bigger market for their apps. The bigger the market is for the apps, the more developers, and the more great content. This is why we’ve been so focused on trying to get the price down, trying to make things easy for consumers. Because you build a consumer base, then you get developers building awesome stuff, and then lots of amazing stuff happens.
Will VR headsets be smaller any time soon?
It’s not clear they’re going to get that much smaller. I do think they will get higher resolution and a wider field of view. They’ll do a better job of incorporating the real world into the virtual world and scanning where you are. Controllers are great, but at some point we will get to where I can just put a headset on and have my hands do things.
Can you tell me about the influence of Hugo Barra coming to Oculus in January?
I had a funny feeling you would say he was great, but, I mean he’s made some changes right?
Well, Mark made his bold statement wanting to get 1 billion people to use VR.
When will that be?
He didn’t specify. What Hugo brings is a lot of experience building devices (he’s a former executive at Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi and a former executive at Google). Particularly, Xiaomi has built very high-quality but very low-cost devices, and entered new markets like India. So he has a lot of experience with how to help us take what we think is an awesome experience and get it into the hands of people as inexpensively as possible. I think the fact that we can price Oculus Go at $199 after Hugo joined is not necessarily an accident.
Was this something he was pushing you to do?
He brought the capability and knowledge and the kind of confidence to be able to build the product at that price.
But why did it take some someone to actually say that, though—that you can sell more devices if they are cheaper?
Well, it’s obvious to everyone, but no one else is shipping a product anywhere close to this cost, right? I mean, this is the joke in Silicon Valley: The ideas are worthless, execution is everything. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to actually do all the work.
I’m going to take this thing and I’m going to add a battery to it and a CPU and a GPU, and I’m going to give you a controller, and I’m going to sell all of that to you for $200. There’s a bunch of work there.
John Carmack (Oculus’ chief technology officer) has been a long advocate of low-cost VR. He’s put heart and soul into the Gear VR. It’s on the back of his work that we even have a prayer of doing this.
Do you foresee at some point in the future that the headsets will be a combination of both virtual reality and augmented reality? [With virtual reality, people are completely immersed in digital environments, whereas with augmented reality, people see digital images overlaid on the real world.]
I think VR and AR will be two different things.
You don’t subscribe to the mixed view of it, then?
I mean, I think that if there’s some magic leap in technology that I haven’t seen yet, but right now everything looks like a strict trade-off. Meaning if I want to make it stronger, lighter, and let in actual light, I’m going make the display worse.
When will my phone be as good as an IMAX? Never.
So, there may be some times when I watch movies on my phone, and sometimes I go to the IMAX.
So you and I are chatting right now, and if I want to augment our experience with AR, it’d be great for me to have a pair of AR glasses. If I want to talk to my dad who lives in Florida, I want to put a VR headset on, because I want to feel like I’m there with him. And VR’s going to do a much better job of that than AR for the foreseeable future.