Facebook’s virtual reality effort, including its big bet on the virtual reality goggles maker Oculus VR, has a new leader.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said in a post last week that Hugo Barra, who previously held a position as a key VP for Android at Google, and led Chinese phone maker Xiaomi’s international efforts in a VP role, was joining Facebook to lead its virtual reality business. The move puts to rest questions about who would assume direction of the efforts after Oculus ran into several hurdles, including an intellectual-property lawsuit and leadership changes.
“Hugo shares my belief that virtual and augmented reality will be the next major computing platform,” Mr. Zuckerberg wrote in the post. “Hugo is going to help build that future.”
Facebook paid $2 billion to acquire Oculus almost three years ago, with Mr. Zuckerberg proclaiming virtual reality the next big thing. While Oculus has released its virtual reality goggles and there is interest in the field, sales of the headsets are sluggish, and even Mr. Zuckerberg has said Facebook will probably need to invest an additional $3 billion in content and development over the next few years in hopes of seeing virtual reality take off.
Facebook’s desire to have a major stake in the virtual reality technology partly reflected the fact that it was not able to do so in mobile, even though it has managed to profit handsomely from mobile advertising. But the most capable virtual reality headsets are expensive and require powerful personal computers to support them. Breakout applications, including video games, have not materialized because developers have been reluctant to pour resources into an uncertain market.
While Facebook does not provide sales figures for the $599 Oculus Rift headset, which was released to the public last year, analysts believe they are slow. One research firm, SuperData Research, estimated the company sold only about 355,000 by the end of last year.
Oculus has been problematic for Facebook in other ways. Last month, a founder of Oculus, Brendan Iribe, stepped down as chief executive, moving to lead an Oculus group focused on virtual reality on personal computers. Facebook is also facing a lawsuit from ZeniMax Media, which has accused Oculus of stealing technology that went into the creation of the Oculus goggles. The social network could face as much as $2 billion in damages if it loses the suit.
This month, Mr. Zuckerberg said at the trial for the lawsuit in a federal courthouse in Texas, “I don’t think that good virtual reality is fully there yet.”
Mr. Barra is well known in Silicon Valley. As a Google executive several years ago, he helped build the search giant’s Android mobile business. In 2013, he left to join Xiaomi, then an up-and-coming phone maker in China, and became its international face. He oversaw Xiaomi’s international expansion to emerging markets including India, Myanmar and Brazil.
But the high-flying smartphone maker, once valued at $45 billion, has slowed as it has battled other Chinese hardware companies like Huawei and OnePlus. Recently, Xiaomi stopped sharing its annual sales numbers, after the chief executive, Lei Jun, admitted the company had expanded “too fast.” Mr. Barra left Xiaomi this month.
“The highest calling of an engineer is to make technology breakthroughs quickly and readily available to the widest possible spectrum of humanity,” Mr. Barra posted last week. “That will be my mission at Facebook.”
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