During the Facebook F8 developer conference keynote speech, Mike Schroepfer, Facebook CTO, gave a live demonstration of some of the work the company is doing to make virtual reality a social experience.
Schroepfer was physically on stage at the F8 conference in San Fransisco, and he was joined in virtual reality by Michael Booth, of Facebook’s social VR team, who was actually located 30 miles away at his office in Menlo Park. Schroepfer and Booth both shared the same virtual space and toured different virtual locations together. The two of them experienced being inside 360-degree photos of different locations, including sightseeing in London and a Boeing hangar where Facebook’s Aquila UAV is being built. Schroepfer and Booth even took a VR selfie of themselves in London.
The demonstration shown featured avatars that were very similar to the one seen in the Toybox demo video. The avatars in the social VR demo are a little bit more detailed, featuring glasses and hair. You can even decorate each other with drawings of clothing items, such as the bowtie and necktie shown in the video.
This demonstration showed an example of a social interaction in virtual reality, but Facebook said it has a long way to go before achieving true social presence. Currently, VR can relay some body language, namely hands and head motion, plus positional tracking, but these offer only a small fraction of the social cues we perceive in person to person interaction.
Facial expressions and eye movement are both very important tools for communication, as are full body movements. In the future, Facebook hopes to have tracking for the full range of human movement and social cues, but the company said that animation rigs that can replicate the full range of facial movements don’t exist yet. Facebook has been working on mouth expression tracking using an HMD-mounted camera with some success, but the company said that it can't yet replicate all the subtleties.
Facebook noted that algorithms for eyes and other physical traits will still have to be developed. In order to figure out the best way to create algorithms that can accurately predict and replicate body movement, the company built a panoptic studio that lets it capture movements from all directions. Facebook expects to be able to create algorithms that can do this, by using the data that is collected from the panoptic studio.
If Facebook meets its goals, we’ll be able to experience genuine emotional connections remotely, through virtual reality, in the not too distant future.