Facebook’s Oculus TV Is a Half-Baked Smart TV App for VR

Facebook released a new app for its Oculus Go virtual reality (VR) headset Monday: Oculus TV is meant to be a one-stop-shop for watching streaming video content in VR. However, during a test over the past few days, it became clear that Oculus TV is still very much a work in progress.

When Facebook’s VP of virtual reality (VR) Hugo Barra first announced Oculus TV in early May, he likened it to a smart TV, but for your VR headset. “It works just like the best smart TVs out there,” Barra promised, adding that the app would launch later that month on the Oculus Go headset.

It took Facebook three extra weeks, but on Monday, Oculus TV finally launched. The app is meant to be a kind of shortcut for Oculus Go users looking to watch traditional 2D videos on the headset: Content from Netflix, Hulu and elsewhere — think videos that aren’t optimized for VR headsets, but would also stream on your phone, computer or TV.

There’s a reason Facebook is building a dedicated app for this kind of fare. Video viewing has proven to be immensely popular on mobile VR headsets, with Samsung reporting early on that 80 percent of the users of its Gear VR headset were watching video with the device on any given day.

Video providers like Netflix and Hulu have also seen the sign of the times, and built dedicated apps for VR headsets, offering users a chance to browse their catalog and stream movies and TV shows in virtual living rooms. Media center app maker Plex is even giving users virtual popcorn to spill on their virtual couch.

But while the virtual living room is a pretty good metaphor, there no real reason why each and every video provider should have to build one on their own. After all, you don’t have different rooms in your actual house to watch Netflix and HBO either.

With Oculus TV, Facebook tried to build a kind of shared living room with a virtual TV that displays a smart TV-like interface, complete with app shortcuts for Netflix, Hulu, Showtime, Pluto TV, Newsy, Facebook Watch and Red Bull TV. The result really does look and feel like a smart TV of sorts. Albeit, a pretty clunky one.

At launch, Oculus TV only offers two rows apps and content to navigate: The first row is a pretty generic showcase of some of the content featured on Pluto TV, Hulu and Red Bull TV, and the second one offers shortcuts to installed and suggested video apps.

Red Bull TV, Facebook Watch and Pluto TV play directly in the Oculus TV living room interface, whereas Netflix, Hulu and Showtime all open up their own dedicated apps. Some of these dedicated apps do offer deep linking, and Oculus TV does for instance list a few viewing recommendations for Hulu content. However, the Oculus Go headset takes its sweet time loading up these shows. In one test., it took 23 seconds before a Hulu show selected in Oculus TV actually started to play.

The Netflix VR app doesn’t offer any deep linking at all — which makes visiting Oculus TV a bit redundant in the first place. After all, why not just launch the Netflix VR app when you want to watch Netflix?

There is also no universal search across the apps and services available on Oculus TV, and some just don’t work very well with the interface. Pluto TV in particular has largely adopted the same TV-guide-like UI it also offers on PC, TV and mobile. But what makes sense on other devices turns out to be really hard to navigate with a VR controller that only offers imprecise scrolling.

Even more striking about Oculus TV is everything that’s missing: Oculus is promising additional apps and services, including ESPN, for the coming months. But at launch, there are really just a handful of apps available, which pales in comparison to your typical smart TV. Executives from two video services, who spoke with Variety on the condition of anonymity, said that the number of users of the Oculus Go simply didn’t warrant building apps for the device at the current time.

With Oculus TV, Facebook really is building a smart TV platform for VR from scratch. As such, it is dependent on content providers to embrace its platform, and it is struggling with some of the very issues that traditional smart TV makers have been grappling with for years. This includes big players guarding their data, and smaller players struggling with resources to build compelling interfaces. In other words: Facebook is learning the hard way that building smart TVs isn’t easy.