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Facebook's mission with Oculus Quest is all about VR games

Hugo Barra, Facebook's VR chief, says there's a lot you can do in virtual reality. But for now, the focus is on gaming.

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Mark Zuckerberg announced the $399 Oculus Quest, Facebook's latest headset, coming in spring 2019.

James Martin/CNET

I've gone on a lot of adventures in virtual reality, from staring down a Tyrannosaurus rex to scuba diving a shipwreck with a blue whale to sculpting neon colored statues in the air with a magic paint brush.

But by far the most compelling experiences have been games, while piloting a spaceship in an epic dogfight or holding my ground against hordes of zombies. I've also played capture the flag in zero gravity.

With few exceptions, games are the experiences I talk the most about when discussing VR, and I'm not alone. Which is probably why Facebook's Oculus VR division is focusing its marketing muscle on video games for the spring 2019 launch of its $399 Oculus Quest headset.

Hugo Barra, Facebook's vice president of VR, joined the company last year.

James Martin/CNET

"It is an audience that is enthusiastic," Hugo Barra Facebook's vice president of VR, said in an interview at the company's Oculus Connect conference in San Jose, California, on Wednesday. Gamers, he said, are "willing to invest both their time and their money."

That doesn't mean there aren't other experiences, of course. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg often says he expects VR will upend the way we use computers, marking a massive shift similar to the way smartphones have changed tech over the past decade.

But Zuckerberg has also said he wants 1 billion people to try VR, and at least 10 million people using each of his company's range of headsets. When it comes to the Quest, Barra said, the team has chosen to focus on gaming.

The company set up mock tennis courts in the San Jose Convention Center, where people can compete in games while wearing the headset. It also set up a large game space where up to six people could split into two teams, competing in an Old West-style shootout while hiding behind various crates and boxes in the room.

Each of the experiences was designed to show off both the Quest's all-in-one, wire-free design and the experiences VR can offer.

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But Barra said if you squint a little and think about new technology coming down the pike -- like much lighter headsets, better sensors and the ability to use your full hands in VR rather than rely on controllers -- you can also get a sense of the future Oculus sees.

"You could very quickly see how that becomes a thing that pretty much everyone on the planet will want to have, because it just make their lives better," he said. "You'll have far better entertainment, far better connection with other people, far better communication, far better productivity at work than what you have today. And you actually don't even have to squint that hard."

Here are edited excerpts from our conversation with Barra at Oculus' developer conference shortly after Zuckerberg announced the new Quest headset.

How is the way VR is shaking out different or the same from the way smartphones took off?
Barra: These ecosystems take time to develop. And I think if you were to look back at the smartphone ecosystem, there were things around that you can call a smartphone, like, in maybe 2002. You could certainly see the glimpses of a smartphone with a proper operating system, or at least a way for people to build apps and things that were more than just like a simple HTML web browser.

Yet most people would say that this thing didn't really start taking off until 2007 or 2008. It's kind of easy to forget how much you know happened in those eight years from 2000 to 2008.

So I can't quite place VR in this time frame. I don't know whether we're in 2000, or 2003, or whatever it is. Certainly we're not in 2008. We're at the very, very beginning of this.

You guys said you significantly increased your investment in augmented reality. What did you mean by that?
Barra: It is certainly an area that we're investing significantly. We are going to see an absolute shift in computing paradigm. It's the entire reason why Oculus exists and why it's part of Facebook, is that we all believe that that's going to happen.

Facebook's current lineup of VR devices, including its midlevel headset, the newly announced $399 Quest.

James Martin/CNET

So you can only imagine what that means. A company of the size of Facebook, with a CEO with the vision of Mark saying this is the most important thing in the next 10 years.

Sure, and Zuckerberg said before he was working on AR glasses. I guess I always considered you guys as focused on VR. But now I get a sense it's more that you guys will do both.
Barra: You can think of us having multiple product lines going into the future. I think we've made a very clear statement here at Connect that we have our VR product lines, and we're going to keep working with the developer community to make sure that they're all supported across these platforms.

And at some point, you know, there'll be other products.

Where are we with smartphone VR? Samsung didn't mention it this year when unveiling its new phones. And on stage, you showed Oculus Go as an entry-level device, seeming to take the place of smartphone VR. What's going on?
Barra: Drop-in VR or slide-in VR or however you want to call it was a really important entry point for the industry. It gave developers and consumers a really inexpensive tool and vessel to start experimenting and building apps on. It certainly also inspired us to figure out the starting point for what all-in-one VR was.

It was a very important initiative, for all those reasons. But the user base is super engaged. And I get that they didn't talk about it at their event, but this thing is still happening.

In many ways it's still creating awareness for VR. We see a lot of people who try it in our logs, and then are upgrading.

VR is this thing we've been talking about for decades. So you ask, "Have you actually tried it?" "Oh yeah, my friend has a Samsung Gear VR."

So it was a necessary step and I think will continue to be for some time for this industry to keep moving ahead.

Oculus Connect: Everything announced at Facebook's annual VR conference.

VR's missing link: You likely haven't bought a VR headset yet and it's beginning to show.