Facebook Virtual Reality Guru 'Embarrassed' by Lack of Social Experiences for Users During Global Pandemic

A consulting executive at Facebook's Oculus unit says he is "embarrassed" by the lack of social experiences offered during the COVID-19 pandemic, which he asserted should have been the "coming of age" for virtual reality.

John Carmack, who is the subsidiary's consulting chief technology officer (CTO), said in a talk during the Facebook Connect developer conference yesterday that the lockdowns enforced by global novel coronavirus outbreaks were a missed opportunity.

In a series of frank comments he listed the names of abandoned projects, saying they could have helped VR users connect with friends and family during the crisis.

"This was the opportunity to defy distance, defy reality," he said, before acknowledging the Oculus Quest VR headsets had suffered from a lack of stock availability.

"Not only were we sold out most of the time... but, worse, all of our social experiences were basically killed or deprecated," Carmack said, as noted by UploadVR.

"We had Rooms, Spaces, co-watching and all those are gone," he said, naming prior services. "Venues has been in maintenance mode for this entire time. So we made this huge bet on Horizon and we've had all these people working on it and you're seeing... fruits of that finally with the Venues 2.0 now but, basically we weren't ready."

Facebook's Horizon, a social experience where users can play games or chat inside a virtual world, is currently available as an invite-only beta, not open to everyone.

Facebook confirmed in August this year that it was testing the addition of social features to Venues, an app designed to let users watch live events using the headset.

According to Carmack, there was little appetite inside the company, which now operates under the banner Facebook Reality Labs (FRL), to re-launch the prior projects.

"We had all of this effort going into it, we had let the previous products more or less rot or go away, and I had made a pitch that 'well, can't we just resurrect Rooms for this time? Rooms for the pandemic, here," he said.

"We could have run it but nobody wanted to stop the scheduled things and everything that was already planned for this time, to go work on something like that."

The VR division inside the Mark Zuckerberg-led social platform officially announced the Oculus Quest 2 Wednesday, pitched as a more accessible option compared to headsets that require a powerful PC to use. Priced at $299, the unit has better resolution than its predecessor (1832 x 1920 pixels per eye) and new wireless Touch controllers.

Carmack, who announced he was stepping down as Oculus CTO last November, did not hold back about internal issues the Oculus development team had faced.

"Frankly I'm kind of embarrassed about our social story here but thankfully the slack's been picked up by the third parties and I frankly envy the learnings that they're getting out of all this, we see the numbers and we see lots of time spent in these.

"There are lessons that you just don't learn even with a big well resourced team that's told to go 'build something great.' It's a different world when you have got thousands of real users going though it versus just your internal testers.

"We are getting close to the point where we are going to learn those things but a lot of it is going to be relearning things that other people already have."

See the full keynote below (story comments: 13:26)

Oculus Quest
An attendee tries out the new Oculus Quest at the Facebook F8 Conference at McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on April 30, 2019. AMY OSBORNE/AFP/Getty