Facebook wants us to take VR selfies with virtual selfie sticks

Could this be the future of social VR?

When Facebook bought Oculus two years ago, many thought the combination was odd. Facebook is a social network while Oculus makes virtual reality headsets. The two didn't seem to go together. Well, at F8, Facebook's developer conference, we might have seen a peek into how Facebook plans to integrate social into VR. It's not just about watching a movie together or linking an Oculus account to Facebook. It actually involves interacting with another person in a virtual space: chatting, laughing, drawing doodles, sharing photos and, as we saw in a demo at F8, even taking virtual selfies with virtual selfie sticks.

Onstage in San Francisco, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer donned an Oculus Rift headset, which he used to communicate with a colleague based back in Facebook's headquarters, in Menlo Park. They were both represented as floating heads and hands, but you can customize your avatar by using virtual pens to draw in facial hair and other features. They even created virtual neckties and attached them to each other. Think of them as Snapchat doodles but in VR.

Next, Schroepfer's colleague gave him what appeared to be a circular image. He "threw" it at Schroepfer, and it then exploded into a 360-degree image that completely surrounded both of them. The image was that of the St Pancras train station in London. Then he tossed another image his way and it expanded to a 360-degree surrounding of Piccadilly Circus. What really got the crowd's attention, however, was when they went to a Tower Bridge scene; they actually took a virtual selfie using a virtual selfie stick. After doing so, Schroepfer sent the selfie to his Facebook feed through what appeared to be a virtual teleporting mailbox. This, it seems, is what Facebook imagines social VR will be like.

Yaser Sheikh, a researcher for Oculus, said onstage that as technology improves, this will become even more likely. Even though current VR avatars are pretty rudimentary, he said that we're still able to infer what's happening. "The moment the points move, the ambiguity disappears," he said, adding that the use case for social VR is manifold. You can share intimate moments like the birth of a child in VR, for example, or enjoy virtual sightseeing with friends. "Genuine, deeply convincing interactions, remotely," is the goal. That kind of immersion and deep connection isn't possible with a regular photo or video, he said. Facebook is also working on head-mounted cameras to pick up more-detailed mouth movements so that the avatars are more lifelike than before.

"Imagine a social experience in VR that's indistinguishable from real life," Sheikh said. "Where the tech disappears and you're just interacting with another person." Facebook is several years away from that reality, but it's clear that it has already started laying the groundwork for it to happen.