Earlier this year Facebook announced something called Oculus TV, a new entertainment platform for watching television in VR. Now it's available to download for free and use on the Oculus Go, the company's new wireless headset.
First of all β yes, Netflix, Hulu and others already had streaming apps for VR, and if you own a VR headset, chances are you've had a go at watching some 360-degree videos, maybe a TV show or, heck, even a movie. Oculus TV is more like a one-stop-shop that pools together some of these existing apps along with a handful of new ones, including Facebook's own video content.
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I've been trying out Oculus TV on the Oculus Go, and it's clear this is a much better fit for this type of app than the PC-tethered Oculus. The freedom the Go affords means you can binge on your latest Netflix favourite from the comfort of your couch, unimpeded by any annoying wires, while the integrated audio makes it easier to slip on the headset and jump right into an episode.
Oculus is selling this as a "new way to watch TV", by plonking you in a virtual living room that overlooks a geographically ambiguous but beautiful sunset vista. Like the cosy living room that Netflix VR drops you in, it's designed to give you a sense of peace and escapism from the real world. After all, isn't that what virtual reality is all about?
Let's start with the good. First, what I just said β it's a nice looking app when you're in it, with a TV screen that Facebook touts at 180 inches. The limits of current VR technology mean we may not be fooled by the slightly grainy world around us, but the picture on the virtual TV itself is sharp enough to enjoy.
Your virtual television operates a lot like a very large, bezel-less smart TV, with a selection of recommended content from various services showing along the top and then a list of video apps below. These are shortcuts to apps you may already have been using, so if you've already signed into them, you won't have to do so again. And should you boot up Netflix, you'll still be taken to the familiar Netflix VR living room. Same with Hulu and its usual interface. For Facebook Watch, Pluto and Red Bull TV you'll stay sat in the Oculus TV house.
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Add Newsy, Showtime and Neverthink to that list and you've got the entire lineup of apps right now β so no, there's not a lot. Facebook promises we'll see more familiar faces down the way including ESPN, but for now it's a very limited selection, and the lack of YouTube is probably the biggest omission.
But in these early foundations it's easy to see what Facebook is trying to build: a centralised hub for all your entertainment. A VR set-top box, if you like. Yes you could just open up the Hulu app, or you could open Oculus TV and see the whole gamut of entertainment and some suggested shows to watch. What's more, later this year Facebook will open up social viewing too, so you'll be able to share that virtual couch with a friend.
The foundations for something better
For its part, the UI makes it pretty easy to jump about between apps. I was able to watch a bit of Rain Man on Pluto Movies before switching over to the White House press briefing, which was being streamed over Facebook. Buffering for me was fast, but that's obviously going to depend on the strength of your Wi-Fi signal. The biggest gripe I have so far with the interface is that the Oculus Go controller touchpad sometimes doesn't respond to my swipes when browsing the channels.
This is probably the best VR TV experience I've had yet. It looks good, yes, but the portability of the Oculus Go means I can lie in bed and still feel like I'm watching a movie in my (non-existent) home cinema.
Oculus TV also demonstrates the continued convergence of Oculus VR and Facebook, four years since the big buyout, which manifests more prominently here in Facebook's own Oculus TV app. This spotlights video content from its Watch service as well as other things people are currently enjoying across the social network. The first video I was recommended was of a Pomerarian eating an ice cream, which a friend had recently liked. I watched it. Fair play.
For me this is going to be the key thing across Oculus TV as a whole: discovery. VR is still very niche, but the more that Facebook can point users in the direction of worthwhile VR content, the more it will draw people in. But the same goes for the whole range of services here. A search feature that reaches across all the apps would be handy, but just as good would be recommendations spanning the services on offer, based on my interests and viewing history. If Facebook can build this into that type of one-stop shop β and get those social features swiftly rolled out β I'll have fewer reasons to put the headset down and just switch my real TV on instead.