Facebook's Zuckerberg eager for virtual reality but sees a slow uptake

Speaking at a conference in San Francisco, the social-networking giant's CEO says VR will eventually become a normal part of life, in the same way mobile devices have.

James Martin/CNET

Mark Zuckerberg can't wait for the day he'll watch a replay of his daughter's first steps while he wears a screen strapped to his head.

That's the future the Facebook co-founder said is coming soon, in part because technology has advanced so far, and gotten so cheap, that it's possible to build a headset that puts a wearer in a computer-generated world. For Zuckerberg, that world includes 360-degree video, through which he could relive his as-yet-unborn daughter's first steps in a wraparound virtual realm. Virtual reality, he said, is the next major computing trend.

But like smartphones and tablets, which took up to a decade to catch on with consumers, VR will take time. " There's a lot of hype, people are very excited," he said Wednesday at the Vanity Fair New Establishment Summit in San Francisco. "People say there are going to be millions of units. Look at smartphones to see that curve."

Zuckerberg is just the latest tech industry VIP to voice support for virtual reality, the notion of computer-generated worlds we can explore and learn from. The technology has long been a popular trope of science fiction, through movies such as "The Lawnmower Man" and "The Matrix." In the real world, though, the nascent tech has been in development for decades, its history sprinkled with failed efforts to sell devices to consumers.

Zuckerberg believes that's all changed thanks to smartphones and tablets, whose ubiquity has pushed the industry to create more-powerful mobile devices while driving down manufacturing costs for parts like screens and sensors. He drew the world's attention to virtual reality last year when he purchased Oculus, a virtual-reality startup, for $2 billion.

Samsung plans a November release for its first entrant in the field, a $99 device called Gear VR, created in partnership with Oculus. Others including tech giants such as Sony, HTC and Microsoft are joining in with their own takes on the technology.

Facebook is set to release its Oculus Rift headset for PCs by March of next year, and it's already doing research for future advancements, including augmented reality, in which computer information is layered on top of real-world images. Zuckerberg said Facebook already has a form of it now that can offer to read out what's in a photo if a blind person clicks on the picture.

Within 15 years, Zuckerberg said, we'll likely see billions of units sold. But today it will start with gamers and tech enthusiasts.

Defending Internet.org

Zuckerberg also gave an impassioned speech defending Internet.org, an effort he kick-started that gives away limited wireless Internet access to people in developing countries. He said the project exists to help bring Internet connectivity to the 4 billion people around the world who aren't yet online.

"It's easy to lose track of the fact that for a lot of people the Internet provides vital information about health care that they might not otherwise have access to," he said. "It's not surprising that there's data that suggests that for every 10 people who has access to the Internet, 1 person gets lifted out of poverty."

It may sound noble, but the effort also came under scrutiny in April, when several Web publishers in India withdrew from the program citing concerns that Facebook was giving preferential treatment. Facebook, some critics said, wasn't allowing access to the full Internet through its service.

Facebook has pushed forward, opening up its "developer portal" in May, effectively letting any company join its effort. Last month, Facebook changed the name of Internet.org to a move Zuckerberg said "helps to take a step back."

"It turns out everything you want to do that's impactful is controversial," he lamented. "Anything that you want to do that is going to change business models will encounter some debate. Rightly so."

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