In a move that caught many in the technology industry by surprise, Facebook has announced that Hugo Barra, a former Google and Xiaomi executive, will become vice president of the social network’s virtual reality (VR) efforts.
That means Barra is in charge of Facebook’s overall VR platform. In a Facebook posting announcing the role, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a point of referring to Oculus, currently the sole producer of the company’s VR headsets, as a “team” within Facebook’s broader VR program. That’s interesting, because it hints that Facebook could end up releasing VR products under other brand names.
“I’ve known Hugo for a long time, starting when he helped develop the Android operating system, to the last few years he’s worked at Xiaomi in Beijing bringing innovative devices to millions of people,” Zuckerberg wrote in that posting. “Hugo shares my belief that virtual and augmented reality will be the next major computing platform. They’ll enable us to experience completely new things and be more creative than ever before.” (Accompanying the text was the above image of Zuckerberg’s and Barra’s avatars having some sort of VR-powered meeting in Facebook’s offices.)
In comments below that posting, Barra issued a similarly broad statement: “I learned from Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun that there’s no greater calling in our industry than taking breakthrough tech and making it available to the greatest number of people. Really looking forward to doing just that at Facebook—taking VR mainstream.”
Facebook has made no secret of its desire to expand VR beyond its current format as primarily an expensive platform for gaming, and making it much more of a mass-market product. At Facebook’s F8 conference in April 2016, Zuckerberg showed off a concept image of futuristic VR glasses that resembled a pair of ordinary eyewear:
In ten years, theoretically, people will use that sort of hardware to access all sorts of VR experiences through Facebook’s channel—whether chatting with friends on the other side of the world, interacting with video, or playing games.
Barra’s background is primarily in smartphones. He was deeply involved in Android for years before leaving Google to become a vice president at Xiaomi, helping the Chinese electronics company figure out new international markets for expansion. Facebook clearly wanted his product-management and marketing skills. The question now is whether he can do for VR what Android helped do for smartphones.