Can Facebook’s video app solve VR’s exposure problem?

News of Facebook working on a new app designed for VR video content, as reported by the WSJ, is as encouraging as it is puzzling.

Facebook made a pretty clear statement about its confidence in the future of VR when it bought Oculus in 2014, but this apparent new move into VR is a decided departure from Oculus-variety VR. (In a post immediately following Facebook’s purchase of Oculus, Mark Zuckerberg even said, “One day, we believe this kind of immersive, augmented reality will become a part of daily life for billions of people.”)

While immersive virtual reality involving a headset is still miles away from becoming a part of our daily lives, Facebook’s involvement in VR content might be most significant because of its exposure. After all, if Facebook has one indisputable strength: it’s the ability to gather millions and millions of people. And although virtual reality shows up in the news weekly, thereal reality is that the vast majority of people have never had a single VR experience. To most, the VR hype is just that: hype. If Facebook can get VR content into the hands of many, it could prove to be a turning point for VR.

See, another big thing many people don’t realize is that VR comes in several different shapes and sizes. While it’s usually the immersive-style, headset-heavy VR that makes the news, the majority of accessible VR content exists on phones and is engineered for viewing without a headset. This content is often referred to as “spherical video” or video that captures an entire 360-degree view of a scene. Spherical videos allow users to “look around” by moving their phones to alter their perspective in a scene.

Discovery VR, which launched at the end of August, features a number of experiences centered around spherical videos. For instance, users can move their phones around in space to take in the entire scene —  be it a shipwreck, Muir woods or Half Moon Bay. Other VR content apps like Vrse, VRstories, and even Volvo’s test drive VR app feature videos that follow the same idea with variations in subject matter and storytelling. But most of the web’s VR content lives on a familiar video giant: YouTube. The hundreds of 360-degree videos on YouTube take you into the cockpits of airplanes and off the sides of literal mountains and allow you to become a part of the action as you control your perspective.

Though it may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one hears the words “virtual reality”, spherical video actually makes up a significant portion of VR content. Consumer VR headsets are still months away (Q1 2016 for Oculus, HTC, and Sony) and something of an unknown. And though Google Cardboard provides a kind of a headset experience, much of the content for Cardboard is actually spherical video that’s been reformatted for Cardboard.

Facebook’s app would, presumably, be quite similar to the existing VR content apps when (if) it’s released, and likely won’t be an incredible innovation on the form of 360-degree video. Even so, Facebook’s development standalone VR video app is essentially an investment in virtual reality outside of the headset. And really, that feels like an investment in a more casual, more frequent, and more commonplace type of virtual reality experience.

Though immersive virtual reality will, in the beginning, belong to gamers and zealots, it will have to find its way into the mainstream market in order to thrive. Developing an app that makes viewing VR content easy, enticing and relevant for an audience that’s never experienced VR may be one solution to VR’s exposure problem. Get the VR bug to bite enough people on a free, low-risk platform and in all likelihood, more immersive experiences (like, ahem, Oculus Rift) will begin taking off.

But of course, Facebook’s VR video app will probably not be just a means to an end. Perhaps we’ll see Facebook rethinking timelines and content delivery. Maybe Facebook will even start dipping into creating original content for this app. Or, more likely, Facebook’s going to create a platform for sharing VR video content socially, trying to capitalize on YouTube’s curatorial weakness.

It doesn’t much matter at this point, though. No matter what the app looks like when it comes out, one thing’s clear: Facebook seems pretty confident that VR is the next frontier, and it’s going to play right into your hands.

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