Can Hugo Barra do for Facebook VR what he did for Android?

26 Jan 2017

Hugo Barra and Mark Zuckerberg as avatars in Facebook VR. Image: Facebook

Virtual reality is still missing its seminal breakthrough moment. As the new VP of VR at Facebook, can Hugo Barra repeat his Android breakthrough success?

Hugo Barra, the former Google executive who presided over the rapid ascent of Android, has left Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi to lead Facebook’s virtual reality (VR) business, which includes Oculus.

Barra was at the helm of building Google’s Android smartphone operating system during its first pivotal years and cemented its position as a rival to Apple’s iOS ecosystem.

‘Hugo shares my belief that virtual and augmented reality will be the next major computing platform’

It is understood that he left Xiaomi in recent days to take up the new role.

His appointment is a significant coup for Facebook.

A broader vision is needed for Oculus

Barra will lead all of Facebook’s VR efforts and will also head up Oculus, which Facebook acquired in 2015 for $2bn.

In recent months, it emerged that Irish company InfiniLED was acquired by Oculus, which plans to use the Irish company’s technology to transform VR.

VR is still awaiting its seminal moment and sales of VR headsets have been sluggish.

The landscape is made all the more confusing by a confection of different headsets; from affordable Daydream devices by Google, mid-range devices from Samsung and HTC, to high-end, pricey devices from Oculus, Sony PlayStation and Microsoft.

My suspicion is that Barra will look at ways of making VR a more populist experience, and that means making more affordable devices, as well as content that consumers will desire.

Facebook said it is likely to be investing $3bn in content and technology to make VR more mainstream in the coming years. Meanwhile, all eyes are on Apple this year to see what it has up its sleeve in the realm of ‘mixed reality’.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg sees VR not only as a platform for games and other experiences, but as a communications platform to bring people together at work or at play.

“Hugo shares my belief that virtual and augmented reality will be the next major computing platform,” said Zuckerberg.

“They’ll enable us to experience completely new things and be more creative than ever before. Hugo is going to help build that future, and I’m looking forward to having him on our team.”

The key task ahead of Barra is to lay the groundwork for the breakout applications and experiences that will bring VR beyond gaming.

In essence, he needs to do for Oculus what he did with Android.

“Xiaomi CEO Lei Jun always says that the highest calling of an engineer is to make technology breakthroughs quickly and readily available to the widest possible spectrum of humanity. That will be my mission at Facebook,” Barra said.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years