“When I first tried virtual reality, I was at a mall in New Jersey as a 10-year old. I went into a giant ring and there was a 10 foot helmet you put on, and it was full of polygons, and was a little scary,” admits Asher Rapkin.
It’s an interesting admission from the Head of Emerging Platforms for Facebook, who counts the Oculus VR assets among his product suite. But his point is about technological advancement.
“Or how about the Virtual Game Boy?” he asks the audience at Advertising Week APAC. “You probably don’t recall it, because it made people violently ill. Now, it was no fault of Nintendo’s at the time - we just hadn’t quite figured out some of the technical issues around VR.”
While technologies like VR and augmented reality aren’t new - Rapkin notes AR has been used for heads up displays for fighter pilots for 50 years, they’ve come on more in the last decade than any time before.
According to Rapkin humans now exist in three distinct worlds: the physical world, where there are currently seven billion inhabitants; the augmented world, which has one and a half billion; and the virtual world, which has “well under 100 million people” currently.
Given the sizes of these populations, it is important for the industry to lay down ground rules.
Rapkin explains; “It’s important to note a couple of changes we’ve made at Facebook recently. Mark Zuckerberg wrote an editorial a few months ago that talked about our new vision; it’s based around the concept of the Town Square and the Living room.
“We are going to keep in mind what someone would reasonably expect to be private and what someone would expect to be public.
“So as we start to think about virtual worlds... we’re going to keep one foot on home base with this.”
Moving between these realms is currently a clunky experience and will require the solving of not just software challenges but hardware challenges too, Rapkin explains. In other words, doing away with especially constrictive devices once and for all.
What the augmented and virtual worlds do offer currently, though, are new forms of media.
“Participatory media is where we are seeing the augmented world leading us. And at Facebook we’re starting to see this with Stories - people are creating in the moment and other people are responding and reacting,” Rapkin tells the audience in Sydney.
“Within the virtual world, we have immersive media. This is the notion of being able to inhabit a story.”
For Rapkin it is the immersive and participatory attributes of these technologies and platforms which will make them everyday tools for us in the near future. “Now, instead of just showing your friend a world, you’re inviting them to participate in it,” Rapkin explains.
“We believe that participatory and immersive media are actually going to bring people closer together. So if I can share the experience of my daughter taking her first step and invite close friends and family to step into that in an immersive environment, that’s a really personal thing to be able to share.”
As for experiencing media in the VR world, we still have a way to go and it’s not a place many people are playing in currently.
He admits: “Four and a half years ago, I confess, I didn’t quite get why we’d acquired Oculus. It was really expensive to be part of.
“But a lot of time has been spent to democratise the technology. The major revelation was the price coming down to $199 with Oculus Go.”
The advent of Oculus Quest, earlier this year, was the real game-changer for Rapkin, however: “What Oculus Quest does is eliminate the tether, so I can freely move around.
“The new technology enlarges the VR area and by doing that cognitive dissonance dissipates. Suddenly the potential for full immersion and storytelling comes to life.”
These advances are noteworthy, but Facebook’s real USP - and one area the company is continuing to invest in - is around community, according to Rapkin.
“Via 360 videos and worlds we can take a metaphorical walk in other people’s shoes. Which drives to the potential of meaningful empathy, which is where we want to go.”
The challenge after that, it seems, is to think about what it means to have a genuinely meaningful virtual presence.
Drawing on the example of a conference, he explains: “In 10 years from now it’s entirely plausible if you had a guest speaker who was 14,000 miles away, you could put on a headset and it would appear as if they were here on stage. This has important implications from an environmental standpoint too, eliminating the need to travel by plane."
While the future is coming quickly, Rapkin says the next steps in the virtual world need to be taken by the whole community, to set it up to succeed: “There are so many open questions to come, on the creative, moral and technical side, and we’re all part of figuring this out together.”