The news that Facebook has created its first app for VR headsets shows that the company is trying to remind people of its position as a leader in the field, how much 360° content there now is, and its ambitions to move onto new screens.
360° is essentially the content for VR headsets that is easiest to make, and of more interest to casual users than high-end VR games. Google has been active in this area for a few years, even helping to fund educational content like its Expeditions, and has shipped 10m Cardboard viewers to let people convert their phones into low-end headsets. It has also shown how engaging the content is; headsets are the ultimate in 'lean-in'.
National Geographic regularly releases 360 video.
As the owner of Oculus Rift, Facebook certainly deserves to be at the forefront of virtual reality. However, Oculus Rift's progress since Facebook bought the company has been mixed. According to Google Trends, it has relatively fewer searches than this time last year, it's price has been cut, and lots of the pop-up shops in the US that were designed to sell it have closed. The new app should help Facebook re-assert its own position, as it will make it easier to find content, and give the people who own the devices more reason to use them.
Facebook's app, for the Oculus app store, will allow people to easily find the best 360° content on Facebook, and watch the content in the best environment, initially just the Samsung Gear VR. Facebook says that there are now more than 1m videos, and 25m pictures in this format, which is enough to make the casual browsing and discovery experience on Facebook difficult. The new app will make content discovery easier, with four tabs to access different sorts of content – 'Explore' for the best content whoever creates it, 'Following' for friends' content, 'Saved', and 'Timeline' for the user's own films and pictures. I would also expect that there would be more tabs added in due course, to cover different genres ('sport', 'funny' and so on), and also sections for brands to own.
360° content is still niche compared to 'flat' videos and pictures, but it is slowly coming of age as some brands have been posting content on Facebook, YouTube and elsewhere. In April last year Game of Thrones teased its 6th season with a 360° video on Facebook, and lots of other brands like Disney and DIY chain Lowe's have also made 360° videos for fans to enjoy and explore. This year was the first year that a 360° was nominated for an Oscar – Google's The Pearl short film for YouTube – and Snapchat and other platforms are also heavily invested in the area.
Game of Thrones teased its 6th season with a 360° video on Facebook
It also shows how keen Facebook is to colonise other screens, just as it has with its Apple TV app. Facebook is very strong on both desktop and mobile screens, and it is now keen to push into other screens, by making it easier for people to both connect to other devices and to find content. Its Apple TV app, which lets people watch video from Facebook on their TVs, is leading Facebook to talk to content providers about making longer, exclusive content.
In the same way, we would expect the 360° app to signal that Facebook is going to put more focus into getting content creators, including brands, to provide content, showing that there is both a willing audience and a home for the content to live in. It also means that brands that do push into 360° can now see how it will get traction, and not have to create their own apps.