Facebook sets out plan for 'effortless' virtual reality socialising

Users could effectively ‘teleport’ to connect with friends in more planet-friendly way, says Zuckerberg

Facebook has unveiled the first of a wave of virtual reality innovations that its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, hopes will allow for effective “teleportation” by the end of the decade.

One experimental project aims to track hand movements using nervous signals read by a wristwatch, with the hope of one day using that data to allow the wearer to manipulate virtual space.

Since Facebook bought the virtual reality company Oculus in 2014, the division has largely focused on gaming experiences, where it has enjoyed a significant share of a relatively niche market. Now, the social network is opening up about its plans for putting virtual reality and augmented reality to more mainstream uses.

In a 10-year plan published this week, the company’s “Reality Labs” laid out how it hopes to achieve its goal of “a contextually aware, AI-powered interface for augmented reality (AR) glasses that can use the information you choose to share, to infer what you want to do, when you want to do it”.

The chief scientist of the research division, Michael Abrash, said: “In order for AR to become truly ubiquitous, you need low-friction, always-available technology that’s so intuitive to use that it becomes an extension of your body. That’s a far cry from where [human computer interfaces are] today.” He said the company needs to invent “the VR equivalent of a computer mouse: a completely new type of interface – one that places us at the centre of the computing experience”.

One approach is to let people control virtual space with hand gestures tracked not with an ungainly camera setup, but with direct monitoring of users’ nervous systems: electromyography, or EMG. “This approach uses electrical signals that travel from the spinal cord to the hand, in order to control the functions of a device based on signal decoding at the wrist. The signals through the wrist are so clear that EMG can detect finger motion of just a millimetre. That means input can be effortless – as effortless as clicking a virtual, always-available button – and ultimately it may even be possible to sense just the intention to move a finger.”

On Monday, Zuckerberg said he hoped the technological improvement in the sector could even help fight climate change. In an interview with tech site The Information, he imagined a future where “rather than calling someone or having a video chat, you just kind of snap your fingers and teleport, and you’re sitting there and they’re on their couch and it feels like you’re there together.

“The more that we can teleport around, not only are we personally eliminating commutes and stuff that’s kind of a drag for us individually, but I think that’s better for society and for the planet overall, too.”

Contributor

Alex Hern UK technology editor

The GuardianTramp

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