Facebook’s Tech Chief on the New Oculus Virtual Reality Headset

Facebook is continuing its push to make virtual reality mainstream.

During the company’s annual Oculus Connect developer conference this week, the social networking giant unveiled its new $ 200 Oculus Go VR headset that, unlike many rivals, doesn’t require a personal computer or smartphone to operate.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg pitched the new headset as the “sweet spot” between the company’s $ 400 Rift headset and the mobile phone-powered Gear VR headset that Facebook sells in partnership with Samsung. Facebook hopes the cheaper headset will convince more people to try virtual reality.

In this edited interview with Fortune, Facebook’s chief technology officer Mike Schroepfer discusses the new Go headsets, his views about VR’s cousin technology, augmented reality, and the impact of relatively new Oculus chief Hugo Barra.

Fortune: Why did it take this long for Facebook to unveil a VR headset that doesn’t need to be tethered to a phone or computer?

Schroepfer: I think that the first couple years of VR is just getting VR to work. Just getting Touch [motion controllers] to work, getting the software to work well on the Gear VR, and getting developers to develop great experiences.

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What will be the quality of the visuals on the new Go standalone headset be like compared to current smartphone-powered headsets?

For the Oculus Go, think of it as a similar experience from a graphics standpoint to the Gear VR, because it’s a similar kind of platform—but with our latest lenses. The sharpness of text and a bunch of other things will be quite a bit improved. But in terms of the graphics, for the developers [building apps] for the Gear VR, this would be similar.

Are you seeing more of a demand from companies interested in VR? [Facebook also debuted a $ 900 Oculus Rift bundle for businesses that comes with a warranty and customer support.]

We’re seeing a lot of companies wanting to use Rift. There are many different projects where people are saying, “Okay, this is the best tool around to visualize something.” “I’m an architect, I want to share a model of the building with my client.” We can pay people to build one of those toothpick things, print some stuff out, or I can bring them into a 3D model where I can take the roof off and basically be like, “See, this is what the living room looks like.”

I’ve talked to people who build simulators for F1 racing cars and they spend $ 2 million building it. And then they see this $ 600 headset or $ 900 [with accessories] and they say, “Cool, now I can buy a thousand of them for the same cost as one of these.” I think it’s this massively disruptive thing. I’ve heard of people doing this for all sorts of different uses—bus drivers, flight—anything that requires simulation. People have used it for first responder training so they can simulate what it’s like to actually be in, terrible fires like in Napa right now, and being inside a building and rescuing people.

Did you expect that so many companies like HP Inc., Dell Technologies, Samsung would debut new Windows-based VR headsets this year?

We hoped that more people would build stuff. I’d be worried if we were the only ones. Because the thing that developers ask for more than anything is a bigger market for their apps. The bigger the market is for the apps, the more developers, and the more great content. This is why we’ve been so focused on trying to get the price down, trying to make things easy for consumers. Because you build a consumer base, then you get developers building awesome stuff, and then lots of amazing stuff happens.

Will VR headsets be smaller any time soon?

It’s not clear they’re going to get that much smaller. I do think they will get higher resolution and a wider field of view. They’ll do a better job of incorporating the real world into the virtual world and scanning where you are. Controllers are great, but at some point we will get to where I can just put a headset on and have my hands do things.

Can you tell me about the influence of Hugo Barra coming to Oculus in January?

Hugo’s great.

I had a funny feeling you would say he was great, but, I mean he’s made some changes right?

Well, Mark made his bold statement wanting to get 1 billion people to use VR.

When will that be?

He didn’t specify. What Hugo brings is a lot of experience building devices (he’s a former executive at Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi and a former executive at Google). Particularly, Xiaomi has built very high-quality but very low-cost devices, and entered new markets like India. So he has a lot of experience with how to help us take what we think is an awesome experience and get it into the hands of people as inexpensively as possible. I think the fact that we can price Oculus Go at $ 199 after Hugo joined is not necessarily an accident.

Was this something he was pushing you to do?

He brought the capability and knowledge and the kind of confidence to be able to build the product at that price.

But why did it take some someone to actually say that, though—that you can sell more devices if they are cheaper?

Well, it’s obvious to everyone, but no one else is shipping a product anywhere close to this cost, right? I mean, this is the joke in Silicon Valley: The ideas are worthless, execution is everything. It’s one thing to have an idea, it’s another to actually do all the work.

I’m going to take this thing and I’m going to add a battery to it and a CPU and a GPU, and I’m going to give you a controller, and I’m going to sell all of that to you for $ 200. There’s a bunch of work there.

John Carmack (Oculus’ chief technology officer) has been a long advocate of low-cost VR. He’s put heart and soul into the Gear VR. It’s on the back of his work that we even have a prayer of doing this.

Do you foresee at some point in the future that the headsets will be a combination of both virtual reality and augmented reality? [With virtual reality, people are completely immersed in digital environments, whereas with augmented reality, people see digital images overlaid on the real world.]

I think VR and AR will be two different things.

You don’t subscribe to the mixed view of it, then?

I mean, I think that if there’s some magic leap in technology that I haven’t seen yet, but right now everything looks like a strict trade-off. Meaning if I want to make it stronger, lighter, and let in actual light, I’m going make the display worse.

When will my phone be as good as an IMAX? Never.

So, there may be some times when I watch movies on my phone, and sometimes I go to the IMAX.

So you and I are chatting right now, and if I want to augment our experience with AR, it’d be great for me to have a pair of AR glasses. If I want to talk to my dad who lives in Florida, I want to put a VR headset on, because I want to feel like I’m there with him. And VR’s going to do a much better job of that than AR for the foreseeable future.

Tech

The Race to Secure Voting Tech Gets an Urgent Jumpstart

Numerous electronic voting machines used in United States elections have critical exposures that could make them vulnerable to hacking. Security experts have known that for a decade. But it wasn’t until Russia meddled in the 2016 US presidential campaigns and began probing digital voting systems that the topic took on pressing urgency. Now hackers, researchers, diplomats, and national security experts are pushing to effect real change in Washington. The latest update? It’s working, but maybe not fast enough.

On Tuesday, representatives from the hacking conference DefCon and partners at the Atlantic Council think tank shared findings from a report about DefCon’s Voting Village, where hundreds of hackers got to physically interact with—and compromise—actual US voting machines for the first time ever at the conference in July. Work over three days at the Village underscored the fundamental vulnerability of the devices, and raised questions about important issues, like the trustworthiness of hardware parts manufactured in other countries, including China. But most importantly, the report highlights the dire urgency of securing US voting systems before the 2018 midterm elections.

“The technical community … has attempted to raise alarms about these threats for some years,” said Frederick Kempe, president and CEO of the Atlantic Council, in a panel discussion. “Recent revelations have made clear how vulnerable the very technologies we use to manage our records, cast our votes, and tally our results really are … These findings from the Voting Village are incredibly disconcerting.”

Fortunately, the past few months have seen signs of progress. The Department of Homeland Security is moving forward with its critical infrastructure designation for voting systems, which frees up resources for helping states secure their platforms. The Texas Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit challenging the state’s use of digital voting machines. And in Virginia, state officials are converting voting systems to use paper ballots and electronic scanners before the November 7 elections. They say the change was motivated by the findings at DefCon’s Voting Village.

Susan Greenhalgh, an elections specialist for the vote-security group Verified Voting, which worked with Virginia officials this fall, applauded the “transition into real-world change” that had transpired in just the last few months.

Virginia and Texas represent important progress, but plenty of work remains. Five states still rely solely on digital voting machines without paper backups, and at least 10 states have mixed voting infrastructure, with certain counties that use digital voting without paper. These systems are the most vulnerable to manipulation, because you can’t audit them afterward to confirm or dispute the digital vote count in the case of suspected tampering.

“The one core point that election security experts and others have been making about why our votes are safe was that the decentralized nature of our voting systems, the thousands and thousands of voting offices around the country that administer the election, is what kept us safe,” Jake Braun, a DefCon Voting Village organizer and University of Chicago researcher said. “Because Russians [or other attackers] would need to have tens of thousands of operatives go get physical access to machines to actually infiltrate the election. We now know that’s false.”

With only a handful of companies manufacturing electronic voting machines, a single compromised supply chain could impact elections across multiple states at once. The Voting Village report emphasizes that there is a huge amount of change required in the US to address security issues at every point in the election workflow, from developing more secure voting machines to sourcing trustworthy hardware, and then actually setting up voting system devices and software for use in a secure way. DefCon founder Jeff Moss says that the goal for next year’s Voting Village is to have a full election network set up so hackers can evaluate and find weaknesses in a complete system, not just individual machines.

The Department of Homeland Security recently confirmed that Russia infiltrated various election-related systems in 21 states during 2016, and access to a full voting-system setup would give security researchers additional real world insight into defending US voting infrastructure. But as was the case with acquiring real voting machines for last summer’s conference, Moss says it has been extremely difficult to gain access to the third-party proprietary systems that states use to coordinate voting.

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“I would love to be able to create any kind of a complete system, that’s what we’re aiming for,” he said during the panel. “The part that’s really hard to get our hands on is the backend software that ties the voting machines together to tabulate and accumulate votes, to provision voting ballots, to run the election, and to figure out a winner. And boy do we want to have a complete voting system for people to attack. There’s never been a test of a complete system—it’s just mind boggling.”

DefCon’s voting village and interdisciplinary partnerships are certainly raising awareness about election security and motivating change, but with some elections just a few weeks away and the midterms rapidly approaching, experts agree that change may not be coming quickly enough.

“We’ve got a lot to do in a short period of time,” said Douglas Lute, a former national security advisor to President George W. Bush and former US ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama. “In my over 40 years of working on national security issues I don’t believe I’ve seen a more severe threat to American national security than the election hacking experience of 2016. Russia is not going away. This wasn’t a one shot deal.”

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