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Editorial: Why Facebook’s Portal Could Be The Next Great AR/VR Accessory

Editorial: Why Facebook’s Portal Could Be The Next Great AR/VR Accessory

In case you are unfamiliar with Facebook’s Portal, please let me bring you up to speed.

I toured through the website for Portal for the first time this week. The product debuted last year, and the whole website for the device reads like Facebook put a mirror up to itself and had trouble figuring out how to explain what it saw. The gadget is supposed to help you video chat with your contacts, but there’s a whole section of the product site dedicated to privacy. There is a physical cover you can place over the device’s camera when you don’t want a palantir-like glass eye staring into your room all the time and there’s a red light, too, that comes on when you a press a button to physically disconnect the camera and microphone from the rest of the device’s electronics.

Normally $200, Portal is available as of this writing for purchase as a pair for less than $250. Facebook’s VP of VR and AR, Andrew Bosworth, said earlier this year that new Portals are coming soon.

Here’s why I think mixed reality and Oculus Quest should be at the core of the next Portal.

Portal XR

In 2016 I found myself following emailed instructions, and trial and error, to enable mixed reality capture on a PC with a handful of apps like Fantastic Contraption. Three years later software like Liv and Mixcast help activate these features in some apps, and decrease the friction of setting up a capture session, but overall it is still difficult to get working.

Why did I go through all that effort? Because mixed reality capture is the best way to show other people what it feels like in a virtual world. Valve’s 2016 marketing video for the HTC Vive and their SteamVR room-scale tracking system extensively used this technique to demonstrate the hardware’s capabilities, and the video remains (in my opinion) the single best piece of VR hardware marketing ever made.

If mixed reality videos are so good at showing what VR is like and we produce content for a VR news website that could benefit from this type of content — why do we almost never use the approach? The answer is simple — because it is so difficult to set up every time for each new game. Facebook could erase all that difficulty with a gadget like Portal.

Casting From Oculus Quest

I find it surprising the first generation of this video calling device doesn’t run the Oculus app already to cast the view from an Oculus headset — just like an Android or iPhone. I’m glad this feature is there on my phone to use when needed but, overall, it isn’t very usable for the same reasons Gear VR is essentially dead — I have to decide between draining my phone’s battery or seeing a virtual world. I’d rather keep my phone charged, thank you very much.

A Portal, though, could be plugged into the wall and mirroring the view from inside an Oculus Quest. And that should just be the beginning.

If Portal and Quest could communicate automatically to deduce their locations relative to one another, then you’ve got yourself most of the way toward an auto-calibrated mixed reality studio. For the player in an Oculus Quest — at any given moment they should be able to activate mixed reality on the nearby Portal and show everyone in the room exactly what they are doing.

Here’s a video from Oculus Connect 5 in 2018 where a bunch of Quests share their location with a nearby iPad for precisely this type of functionality:

Lets take it a step further. Why couldn’t we place a Facebook Messenger call and broadcast mixed reality video live over our call?

Facebook’s dedicated communicator already does this for AR effects overlaid on top of faces.

If the next version of Portal was capable of all that? We are suddenly talking about a product I might be interested in buying for $200 to go with my Oculus Quest.

We still don’t know what to expect at Oculus Connect 6 — we’ll publish some predictions closer to the event. Facebook announced this session coming at the event in September:

Xiang Wei, Tech Lead Manager, Facebook; Kevin Xiao, Software Engineer, Facebook

One of the biggest challenges to VR adoption is the ability to share its power and excitement with those who don’t have a headset in a scalable way. This presentation will describe how to add mixed reality capture support to your Quest applications, as well as important considerations to bear in mind. It will also introduce our updated camera calibration and capture workflows that are designed for developers, streamers, and influencers.

Let us know what you think of Portal and its future in the XR ecosystem down in the comments below!

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