Facebook to Put Spotlight on Virtual Reality at F8 Conference, May Show Off New Headset

Mark Zuckerberg Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg holds a pair of virtual reality handsets during the keynote address at the F8 Facebook Developer Conference, in San Francisco. Zuckerberg said Facebook is releasing new tools that businesses can use to build "chatbots," or programs that can talk to customers in conversational languageFacebook Conference, San Francisco, USA
Eric Risberg/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Virtual reality (VR) is getting a lot more attention at Facebook’s annual F8 developer conference this year: The event, which will be held in San Jose next week, will feature a number of sessions and announcements related to VR. The company may also use F8 to show off the latest prototype of its standalone VR headset.

Facebook is keeping details on any VR-related announcements at F8 tightly under wraps, something that one of the company’s partners compared to Steve Jobs-like secrecy in a conversation with Variety. But the conference schedule already lists 8 VR-related talks and sessions.

That’s not only four times as many as last year, it also makes VR the third-most-popular topic at the conference, based on the number of scheduled sessions. Instagram, WhatsApp, and even a topic as essential as monetization each has fewer sessions scheduled than VR. Some of the subjects on the schedule include social VR, VR gaming, and web-based VR experiences.

But the company may also use the event to give developers a status update on its latest hardware efforts.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced at Oculus Connect last October that his company is working on a standalone virtual reality headset that will combine some of the higher-end features of the Oculus Rift with the portability of the mobile Gear VR headset. “We believe that there is a sweet spot between these,” Zuckerberg said at the time.

The “Santa Cruz” prototype, as shown at last year’s Oculus Connect conference. Courtesy of Facebook

Facebook did show off an early prototype code-named “Santa Cruz” to developers at the event, but Variety has learned that the Oculus team has since been working on a newer version. One of the internal code names for this new prototype is “Monterey,” according to a source familiar with the project, but there’s also a possibility that the company may use another beach town as its name.

(Oculus named all of the prototypes for the original Rift headset after beaches close to its original headquarters in Irvine, Calif.; it picked “Santa Cruz” as a first public code name for the standalone headset after moving to Northern California following the acquisition by Facebook.)

The standalone headset won’t require a connection to a computer or the use of a phone to render VR experiences. It will also feature inside-out tracking, which means that it will be able to determine the location of a user in a room through sensors attached directly to the device, as opposed to the lighthouse-type sensor used by the Oculus Rift and competing devices like the HTC Vive.

Inside-out tracking is a technical challenge in itself. However, shrinking the computing power needed to render high-end virtual reality experiences in real-time to a mobile form factor may be just as challenging. Oculus particularly has been struggling with battery constraints, according to an industry source.

Zuckerberg had already warned audiences at last year’s Oculus Connect conference that it was early days for the company’s standalone VR headset. The company may nonetheless be looking to share it early on with developers. Just as Rift experiences don’t run on the Gear VR, the new hardware may require a new generation of lightweight applications that make use of positional tracking but don’t necessarily use the computational power of a full-featured gaming PC.