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Last updated: February 21, 2016 9:36 pm

Facebook creates ‘social virtual reality’ team

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Facebook has created a new “social VR” team, led by two video gaming executives, ahead of the launch of its Oculus Rift headset next month.

The unit, unveiled on Sunday, is the first time that Facebook has begun to consider how to bring its core social networking service into virtual reality, two years after acquiring Oculus for $2bn. 

The team is led by two executives from the video games industry, Daniel James and Mike Booth, who both have backgrounds in creating 3D multiplayer experiences. 

That implies that Facebook’s vision for its VR community could look something like Second Life, the online world that saw a brief surge of popularity 10 years ago, or the science fiction concept of the Metaverse, a vast online community where digital avatars mingled on a virtual-reality high street, created by author Neal Stephenson in his 1992 novel Snow Crash

At the same time as announcing the social VR team, Facebook said that users had uploaded 20,000 videos in VR-friendly 360-degree format, after it added the feature to its website and apps late last year. Millions of people watch these 360 or “spherical” videos, which let the user pan around a scene to look in any direction they choose, every day on Facebook, it said. 

Facebook-owned Oculus has already experimented with bringing communication and social networking features through a “Social Alpha” for its Gear VR headset, which lets small groups of people chat as they watch online videos together on a virtual cinema screen, and with Toybox, a Rift game which lets two people play table tennis and other games in a small room together. 

On Sunday, Samsung unveiled a new 360-degree camera for taking spherical photographs that can be viewed in its Gear VR headset, alongside new versions of its Galaxy smartphones.

On stage at Samsung’s press conference at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said that VR was the next step in online communications after text, photos and videos.

“VR is the next platform, where anyone can experience and share anything they want,” he said, suggesting that friends and colleagues will gather around virtual campfires, watch movies in a private theatre or hold group meetings using the technology. “VR is going to be the most social platform.”

He added that Facebook had dedicated “hundreds of our best engineers” to VR, to help create experiences that make “you feel like you’re actually there” with friends.

Facebook’s social VR team, working closely with Oculus’s engineers and designers, will compete with several start-ups that have already tried to bring videoconferencing and social networking into VR, such as Silicon Valley’s Altspace VR and vTime by UK-based digital studio Starship. Google is also investing heavily in VR, with a new smartphone-based headset said to launch later this year. 

“We’ve already helped people connect in a wide variety of ways on mobile devices — ranging from Facebook and Instagram to Messenger and WhatsApp — and now we want to apply that same approach to the new medium of VR,” Facebook said in a blog post.

Mark Zuckerberg, chief executive officer of Facebook Inc., speaks at the Samsung Electronics Co. Unpacked launch event ahead of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, on Sunday, Feb. 21, 2016. Mobile World Congress, an annual phone-industry event organized by GSMA Ltd., runs from Feb 22 to Feb 25. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg *** Local Caption *** Mark Zuckerberg©Bloomberg

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg

Mr James, who most recently worked at Sega, is a British Canadian developer best known for Puzzle Pirates, an online multiplayer game.

Mr Booth joined Facebook from Activision Blizzard, the world’s largest games publisher, and previously worked at games developer Valve on the popular zombie game Left 4 Dead. Both executives joined Facebook in December.

Mr Booth’s LinkedIn listing invites job applications from game developers experienced in building “multiplayer online 3D games”, while Mr James’s profile on the professional networking site describes him as a “pioneer of virtual goods and co-operative, open-ended persistent massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds”. 

Oculus Rift will go on sale next month priced at $600. One of its main rivals, HTC’s Vive, announced on Sunday that it would sell for $800, including motion-sensitive controllers that Oculus’s initial kit lacks.

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