During his keynote talk at the conference for Facebook developers, Facebook CTO Mike Schroepfer strapped on an Oculus Rift headset and slipped on a pair of Oculus Touch controllers to demonstrate what socializing in a virtual reality is like, with a colleague beaming his virtual self from the South Bay to a screen behind the stage.
The pair explored a 360 degree photo of St. Pancras railway station in London and later took a selfie in front of Big Ben -- after doodling ties onto themselves below the floating heads of their avatars. The audience was impressed.
That Facebook VR show was one of the best demos I've ever seen. Amazing UI, tons of complexity that looked effortless. #F8-- Quentin Hardy (@qhardy) April 13, 2016
But as Carnegie Mellon assistant professor Yaser Sheikh, a researcher for Oculus, pointed out in a later segment of the keynote presentation, that selfie highlighted just as much about what VR still lacks as it did present advances the technology has made.
Developing a true sense of "social presence" in virtual reality will require more than the features Oculus now has at hand. He defined social presence as the "visceral experience of being aware that someone else is aware of you." In other words, being so aware that someone else notices you that you modify your behavior -- no talking to yourself.
The new Oculus Touch controllers slated for release are a step in that direction. The handsets are sensitive enough to detect how users' individual fingers move and project that movement in a virtual environment.
But virtual reality needs greater detail in animations and transmission of more body language to intensify the sense that others sense you, and some amount of prediction of participants' behavior to overcome latency in communication, said Sheikh. A sense of things happening in real time and perception of other users' body movements are what will make VR feel natural.
"We need new algorithms," he emphasized to an audience comprised largely of developers.
As the technology develops further, he predicts uses ranging from helping children develop deeper relationships with family living far away to applicants interviewing in virtual environments for jobs around the country with their ethnicity and gender obscured.
"The list of ways our virtual world will get richer is as long as the list of things we do with other people," he said.
Here's a video of the virtual reality selfie presentation.