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Wearable Tech

Facebook just made VR better -- by adding Microsoft Windows

With a new beta, you can do practically anything you'd do with your PC in an Oculus Rift headset.

Facebook

Being transported to a virtual world can be fantastic -- until you realize what you've left behind. No email, no instant messages from friends or family, no TV in the background, no streaming tunes, no Tweets or Snaps or Likes. 

The Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) is strong, and for some it might be a reason to stay out of VR entirely.

oculus-dash-gif-small

Oculus Dash.

Facebook; GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

But with a new beta update available today, Facebook is intentionally letting you break the immersion of its Oculus Rift virtual reality headset so you can do a heck of a lot more in VR. You'll have your full Windows 10 desktop, spread across as many virtual monitors as your graphics card can support. 

That means you can do multitasking -- a lot of multitasking -- even while you continue to play games in VR.

It's Netflix movies while you're blasting robots with your twin pistols. It's Facebook Messenger while you explore one of Facebook's other worlds. You can cross-reference Google Maps locations in your web browser with a full 360-degree view of the same location in Google Earth VR. If you're a professional streamer, you can get real-time feedback from your Twitch community. 

Or replace the soundtrack of a VR game with a Spotify playlist. Or keep an eye on your web-connected baby monitor. (Several parents have approached me to say VR is out of the question because they need to stay alert, even when their kids are in bed.) You can even browse CNET -- assuming I didn't just destroy your appetite to do so with that shameless plug.

Facebook's calling the feature Oculus Dash, and when I tried it this week at the company's Menlo Park headquarters, I was surprised to see just how seamless and responsive the company's virtual monitors can be -- to the point that for me, it totally overshadowed the other new feature Oculus is selling today. (You can now create your own room in VR.)

oculus-home-environment-examples

The new Oculus Home lets you customize a personal VR space, but your room is always the same shape and size (for now).

GIF by Sean Hollister/CNET

Because though Oculus has created hundreds of cool little items for you to add to your own virtual space -- including interactive ones like video game cartridges you can plug into a retro game console to actually launch VR titles and unlockable VR game trophies you can literally mount on the walls -- your creativity is limited to combinations of the items Oculus has already created, in a room the exact same size and shape as everyone else.

Others can come see what you've built, if you let them, but you can't exactly invite them over to share a movie or even read your Facebook status updates. Not yet, anyhow. Product manager Brandon Dillon let slip that he's an Animal Crossing fan, and it definitely feels like that sort of single-player decorating game right now. 

Facebook says it's just getting started with Oculus Home. It's working on tools to let users add their own content, on adding social interactions, and on getting game developers to offer objects as well. And the company wants you to help decide which features it adds first: it's created an UserVoice board for you to suggest ideas and vote up the ones you like best.

But with Facebook's virtual Windows desktops, you don't need to wait for anyone else to build what you'd like to see. If it runs on Windows or in a web browser, you can now have it in VR. 

Just don't expect to do your whole job there. Oculus VP Nate Mitchell admits that the Rift headset isn't ready in terms of comfort -- and after a quick typing test, it's clear that the virtual keyboard needs a lot of work. 

I know what I'm voting for.

If you've got an Oculus and want to give the new updates a try, here's how to get started. You'll need Windows 10 for full functionality.

Full disclosure: My wife works for Facebook, owner of Oculus, as a business-to-business video producer.  

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