Facebook’s top VR researcher explains why augmented reality is the future

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg speaks at his company’s annual F8 developer conference.

Image: AP/REX/Shutterstock

Augmented reality is the future because it’s a lot more socially acceptable than virtual reality. That was the surprising message from  Chief Oculus Scientist Michael Abrash at F8. 

During his portion of the keynote, when many in attendance may have suspected he would dive more deeply into Oculus’ latest virtual reality advancements, Abrash instead laid out an ambitious vision for how how augmented reality will eventually become as ubiquitous as the personal computer. 

That Oculus’ top scientist spent nearly half an hour talking almost exclusively about augmented reality, not virtual reality, may seem surprising, especially considering Facebook just released its first real social VR app for Oculus, Facebook Spaces.

But Abrash made it very clear why Facebook is so heavily invested in augmented reality. In short,  virtual reality will never be as ubiquitous as AR, because it will never be socially acceptable to use VR headsets in public, even if you could do so safely. 

On the other hand, “full AR,” as Abrash described, will only require transparent glasses that look like the eyeglasses people already wear. 

“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’s one key area that will never be VR’s strong suit: always on, go-everywhere, mixed reality,” Abrash said.

“Because no matter how good VR gets, few people would be comfortable socializing with someone whose eyes they can’t see and social acceptability is an absolute requirement for anything we wear in public.”

“Social acceptability is an absolute requirement for anything we wear in public.”

That may sound obvious, since anyone who has tried a VR headset could tell you it’s not socially acceptable to wear outside a gaming setting. Abrash’s remarks, however, were some of the strongest words we’ve heard yet on why Facebook is investing so heavily in augmented reality. 

It’s also a bit of a reality check (pun intended) for the VR community. “Bright” as the future of VR is, it suggests there are some very real limits to how far the technology can go.

That doesn’t mean that there’s no place for virtual reality, however.

“VR will be the most immersive way to interact with the virtual world and it will revolutionize how we work and play,” Abrash said. 

But if it’s not something that will be socially acceptable in public, it raises the question of whether VR will be able to expand beyond its niche appeal. If everyone will have AR glasses in five or 10 years as Abrash predicted, how many people will also want clunky VR headsets?

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