Facebook Sets Goal of a Billion Virtual-Reality Users, Unveils New Headset

Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg announced an ambitious goal of getting a billion people into virtual reality and said he wants to ensure the technology is "a force for good."

The comments, made Wednesday at Facebook's annual Oculus Connect developers' conference, conveyed a different tone for the CEO: anticipating the negative ways a new technology can be used, ahead of its widespread use. They follow a torrent of criticism leveled at Facebook for its hands-off policy on controversial information ranging from the live broadcasting of murders and suicides on its app, to its display of ads and content intended to sow social discord.

Virtual reality is no substitute for being with people, Mr. Zuckerberg told the crowd, but when that isn't possible, it can make the world better. "We want to make sure it's safe, a force for good, and accessible for everyone," he said.

His remarks also followed his apology Tuesday over a Facebook post in which he took a virtual-reality tour of the aftermath of the recent hurricane in Puerto Rico. The video was meant to illustrate the power of VR but backfired, as he and another employee congratulated each other on the cool tech.

"When you're in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real," he said in his apology. "But that sense of empathy doesn't extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That's something we'll need to work on over time."

In the opening keynote to the conference, Mr. Zuckerberg unveiled Oculus Go, a stand-alone, lower-priced headset Facebook said it was working on a year ago. He also showed other planned changes, including 3-D posts, aimed at making VR more visible to users.

The headset, with a $199 price tag and scheduled to be shipped early next year, is part of a new era under Hugo Barra, former global vice president at Xiaomi Corp., who Facebook earlier this year hired to take charge of its VR business.

The steep price tag of Facebook's Oculus Rift headset, which needs to be powered by a separately bought higher-end personal computer, contributed to the company's rocky start in VR. The most popular VR devices by far have been less-costly headsets powered by smartphones, such as the Samsung Gear. Rift sales were so sluggish Facebook cut the price twice since introducing it a little more than a year ago. At the conference, Mr. Zuckerberg said the company would make permanent the current, temporary $399 price for the Rift.

He also announced a new offering -- an Oculus bundle for business -- that includes not just hardware but also licenses, warranties and customer support.

Write to Betsy Morris at betsy.morris@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 11, 2017 19:49 ET (23:49 GMT)