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Facebook’s Oculus boss thinks standalone headsets are the key to getting a billion people into VR

DATE POSTED:January 12, 2018

Barra thinks “standalone” VR is the future. Now he has to help Facebook ship it.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants to get one billion people using virtual reality, a lofty goal considering there were just one million VR headsets shipped across the entire industry in last year’s third quarter.

Meet the man Zuckerberg put in charge of executing that mission: Hugo Barra, a longtime Googler and former Xiaomi executive who took over as Facebook’s VP of VR early last year. Barra worked on early versions of Android and was responsible for helping Xiaomi, the Chinese gadget firm, expand its business overseas. Now he’s the de-facto CEO of Oculus, the virtual reality company that Facebook bought for more than $2 billion back in 2014.

Barra was at CES in Las Vegas this week to unveil a product that might help expedite Facebook’s mission: A new standalone VR headset exclusively for the Chinese market. Facebook is partnering with Xiaomi, Barra’s old employer, on both the technical and distribution side of the new product.

While the arrangement was finalized after Barra joined Facebook, he claims his presence at the social giant didn’t have much of an impact. “I don’t particularly think so, no,” he said when asked during an interview this week. “Xiaomi and Oculus have had a relationship for a while.”

What Barra won’t downplay, though, is the importance of so-called “standalone” VR in accomplishing Facebook’s mission. A standalone headset — meaning no cumbersome cables or wires, and no smartphone necessary — is, in Barra’s mind, the key to pushing VR into the mainstream.

Facebook announced its first standalone headset, the Oculus Go, in October, and then a second, nearly identical version of the same headset for China on Monday. Both should be released this year. It’s also prototyping a separate standalone device, codenamed Santa Cruz, which it demoed last fall, though it hasn’t set a launch date. Other competitors, like Google and HTC, also have standalone headsets.

“[Standalone] is the easiest thing for people to use. You put it on and you’re there,” he said. “You don’t have to worry about setting it up or clipping it in. It is the highest accessibility type of VR that we think can exist.”

“Standalone VR really is a key product category for us to try to get as many people as possible into VR.”

Recode interviewed Barra this week from Oculus’s posh hotel suite at the Wynn, overlooking the Las Vegas strip. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Recode: Facebook has always wanted to get into China. Is Oculus a bridge for Facebook more broadly in China? Or is this new headset separate from Facebook’s other efforts?

Hugo Barra: It’s more of the latter. Xiaomi and Oculus have had a relationship for a while. We wanted a partner that is really well known for building high-quality products in the consumer electronics space, that were also known for being able to deliver those products affordably to their consumers. We wanted a partner that had some VR experience. We wanted a partner that knows and understands and has leadership in the Chinese market. They have, obviously, all these credentials, and [there’s just] not many companies that have these credentials out there.

Why did you take a job running VR at Facebook? Is this a passion technology for you?

My very first job in life was an internship at Walt Disney Imagineering, on the DisneyQuest Project, which is a now-defunct VR sort of theme park experience that Disney built two decades ago, and which ended up enabling a lot of the VR stuff they do now. So I’ve been following VR as an enthusiast, as a consumer and as an engineer for quite a while. I’ve had the chance in my career to work on platforms. I had the chance to work on Android in the early days. There are very few opportunities to work on something that could become one of the most important platforms in our industry and for consumers around the world. I think that what we have — especially with the way that Facebook looks at this — what we have in VR and with Oculus specifically is one of these very rare things.

What has Oculus done differently since you’ve joined?

I think one of the things that I helped with is to really understand the importance of accessibility, of being able to focus on products that people can get their hands on very easily, affordably. A lot of the work that we’ve done to bring Oculus Go to the market is work that I’m personally very passionate about. Would it have happened if I wasn’t here? I don’t know. I think it probably would, but I’m not sure. This is a product that I’m very passionate about.

Does the desire to keep things affordable come from your time and experience working at Xiaomi?

Actually it comes from my experience across the board with Xiaomi, with Android and even at Google before when we were building apps for [early phones]. I’ve always been a big believer in building platforms, including the devices that enable these platforms in a way that you can bring as many people as possible into the game.

What’s the most misunderstood thing about VR?

I think the biggest stigma we see with VR is this sort of isolationist argument that people make, that you get into VR to disconnect yourself from the world and other people. From our perspective, it’s exactly the opposite. It’s the fact that VR is a new type of technology that can actually connect you with people that you probably wouldn’t be able to connect with as easily. I think people may not be seeing that yet, either because they have not tried it or they haven’t experienced enough types of things in VR. But to me that’s one of the biggest sort of invalid constructs that people make about VR, that it’s something to isolate you from the rest of the world.

Besides price, what else is an obstacle to getting headsets to more people?

Besides all the table stakes of having a great experience [with the technology] ... making sure we work with the content ecosystem so that we’re bringing a wide diversity of things for people to do. I have a VR headset, you have a VR headset. What can we do together? We can watch a movie together. We can sculpt or draw together. We can play a game together. We can play cards. We can navigate the web. So making sure that we create a wide enough set of activities that people can do in VR. Obviously we’re just beginning to do that.

You saw the early days of Android. How do the early days of VR compare to the early days of mobile?

It reminds me a lot [of mobile]. I remember when mobile development started shifting from HTML5 and web views to native development, and native development went from static UIs to more fluid UIs with animations and transitions and things like that. Every time there was one of these shifts in design or the way you build an app, developers have to to go through a learning experience, and then it became table stakes and then it was always the next thing and the next thing and the next thing. It’s exactly what’s happening here.

Do you have any interest in creating an Oculus retail store?

We don’t have any plans at this point to start investing into our own retail footprint. We don’t see a need to do that, certainly not at this point because partners are very excited to work with us to bring Oculus into their own retail environments.

If you can only achieve one thing this year, what would it be?

It’s to really establish our leadership in this new category, which is standalone [VR]. It’s what we’re starting to do with Oculus Go, obviously we’re going to continue to invest in Santa Cruz. I think really nailing standalone VR is the one thing that I think is super important for us in 2018 specifically.