Facebook’s developer conference F8 gives great information on what the company is proud about and what are its priorities. This year two highlights stand out: its commitment to creating an iPhone moment in VR and its deep acknowledgement and willingness to tackle its social responsibility after Cambridge Analytica. While the mea culpa and resource shift to safety and privacy has been much talked about, the VR First mantra in Facebook is still underappreciated.
VR’s potential iPhone moment
Time has given the unveiling of the iPhone mythical status. Mobile internet had been severely hyped with the launch of 3G in the early 2000s, but usage had never lived up to expectations. Mobile browsing was only happening in Japan through iMode, while even the most advanced “smartphone” models from Nokia were driving very limited use. Steve Jobs managed to take mobile data across the usage chasm with the iPhone, creating a new dominant interface for the Internet over the last ten years and more than three quarters of a trillion in value for Apple shareholders (from less than $100 billion in 2018 to close to $900 billion).
VR is in a similar place to mobile data pre-iPhone. It has been severely hyped, many players have been putting out headsets but nothing is catching on. VR and AR are still stuck in the wrong side of the innovation chasm, with only techies and geeks using it. Many in the tech industry have acknowledged the new VR/AR winter and downplayed their ambitions. However, Facebook continues to push on all cylinders.
Maybe dating or watch party for Facebook, Group video for Instagram and Whatsapp, or instant translation for Messenger might have been more flashy announcements. However, VR/AR is the area in which Facebook’s commitment and investment is clearer across the board. Its Oculus Go $200 headset could be a game-changer. Its Rooms, TV and Venues are also creating new social use cases for VR that could go viral. Beyond that, Facebook is working to overcome one by one all of the problems VR still has. Overall it seems Facebook is fully committed to VR and it will doggedly pursue creating the “iPhone” of VR through Oculus and seeding the “VR Appstore” with content through its other properties.
It still has not been made explicit, but Facebook has a “VR-first” smell to it which is different from the other Big Techs, which are all following a Cloud/AI first strategy. Its other two long term strategic priorities, AI and Connectivity, seem to be important enabling elements, while VR/AR is the one that will “bring people closer together”. Facebook has unique capabilities that could make it successful: technical capability, consumer sensibility, user experience focus and a depth of VR/AR capabilities in its Oculus unit which is unrivaled by the other Big Techs.
Facebook had a near-death experience with mobile which has led it to try to define its own destiny in the next interface transition. Mobile seems to be reaching maturity, and smartphones are increasingly banal in their differentiation focusing on increasing megapixels and number of cameras. VR/AR could be a transformative interface that leads to a new wave of deeper person-machine integration. If Facebook manages to pull off its VR iPhone moment we could see it skyrocket from the smallest of the Big Techs to a dominant force. We can expect Zuckerberg to do it in his own terms, Jobs was the paranoid perfectionist that wanted to surprise the world in a big event, Zuckerberg seems more the relentless engineer who gets there in sprints by “moving fast and breaking things”. So Facebook “VR iPhone moment” might look more like a continuous improvement curve, rather than a big announcement. However, if the VR interface vision is realized the change and opportunities created will be at least equivalent to that of the momentous iPhone presentation.