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Facebook helping to turn Seattle area into hub for virtual, augmented reality

A visitor tries on a virtual-reality headset at Facebook’s Seattle offices last year. The company is investing heavily in bringing virtual and augmented reality into its social network. (Tribune News Service)
A visitor tries on a virtual-reality headset at Facebook’s Seattle offices last year. The company is investing heavily in bringing virtual and augmented reality into its social network. (Tribune News Service)
By Matt Day Seattle Times

SEATTLE – When Facebook set up shop in Seattle in 2010, CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t have a particular type of work planned for the outpost.

What exactly the social-media giant would do in the Northwest would depend on the kind of engineers the company could recruit.

Eight years and a couple thousand hires later, an answer has emerged: The office is handling a little bit of everything, from networking and systems software to messaging apps and online marketplaces.

And, after a fruitful couple of years poaching from the area’s technology heavyweights, a growing cluster of specialists are working at the cutting edge of virtual and augmented reality.

That work is part of Facebook’s big bet that social interaction and computer use will increasingly include links between the physical and digital world. In practice, this allows you to put party hats on a photo of your dog in the Facebook app, or strap on a headset and interact in a virtual world with an avatar of a friend or co-worker.

The company is investing heavily in bringing these links into its social networks, and, in the process, is helping turn the Seattle area into a hub for virtual and augmented reality development and research.

Facebook earlier this month was among the companies contributing to a new, $6 million virtual and augmented reality center at the University of Washington, the latest sign of the social network’s growing presence in the region’s technology circles.

The aim, said Michael Abrash, the Redmond-based chief scientist at Facebook-owned virtual-reality-headset developer Oculus, is to help develop the next generation of virtual-reality engineers. “I’ve hired a good chunk of the current generation,” he said.

Abrash joined Oculus from game maker Valve in 2014, following a former colleague to help set up what was then a new office in Redmond for Menlo Park, California-based Oculus. Today, the Redmond office employs hundreds of people, a spokeswoman said, declining to get more specific. (A search of professional networking site LinkedIn brings up more than 300 people in the Seattle area who list Oculus as their workplace.)

In 2015, corporate parent Facebook scooped up three prominent Microsoft researchers with expertise in computer vision to start what the social network called a Computational Photography team, today based at Facebook’s new South Lake Union building.

“The real pitch was having 2 billion eyeballs,” Michael Cohen, director of the team said of the decision to join Facebook, referring to the company’s base of active users.

In contrast to some of his time at Microsoft Research, a well-respected unit famous for advanced research that might or might not make it into consumer technology, Cohen said that at Facebook, “we have a very short timeline going from research to product and putting it out to Facebook’s customers.”

Those products include Facebook’s support for 360-degree videos, software that stabilizes and cleans up errors in those videos, and augmented-reality technology that inserts masks and animations into images captured by a smartphone camera.

“We’re looking at kind of the low-hanging-fruit opportunities,” Cohen said. “Things that we can do now.”

In Redmond, meanwhile, Abrash’s teams are looking further out, with five- and 10-year plans aimed at building a new generation of fully immersive virtual-reality products, as well as augmented-reality technology that places computer-generated images into the environment around a person.

Oculus’ first commercial products, in 2016, were part of a wave of high-end virtual-reality headsets that, while technologically impressive, has yet to find resounding commercial success.

“What we’re working on (is) getting VR to the next level,” Abrash said. His goals, he said, include broadening the field of view in headsets, adding depth to the view, and building out social experiences that let you interact with others in virtual reality.

“There are compelling experiences, but what is going to make it be used by a million people? There are a lot of ways we can make it better, and we’re working on that.”

Combined with Valve’s work in Bellevue, and Microsoft’s efforts on its augmented reality HoloLens in Redmond, Abrash said, the area is building a foundation to become a hub for technology that links the physical and digital world.

“Seattle to me now feels like Silicon Valley did in 1986,” said Abrash, who originally came to the Seattle area for a job at Microsoft. “It’s got this critical mass of various types of tech talent. That transformation has been a big one.”

“I would be unsurprised if you looked up 10 years from now and Seattle was the artificial reality capital,” he added.

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