When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg got serious about augmented and virtual reality, he turned to one of his most trusted executives, Andrew “Boz” Bosworth.
Bosworth had already led some of Facebook’s biggest developments. He played pivotal roles in debuting the company's core News Feed, its mobile ad strategy, and its commerce tab. Now Bosworth, formerly Zuckerberg’s teaching assistant at Harvard, is tasked with making AR and VR appealing to average consumers. He took charge of the unit in August 2018.
Bosworth’s team oversees products including Oculus virtual reality headsets, Portal video conferencing hubs, and augmented reality filters for smartphones. The unit is also working on longer-term projects like AR glasses that, when introduced, are supposed to do things like make phone calls and live stream what user's see. It's also working on futuristic technology that would let users control devices using brain signals.
For now, the push isn't bringing in much money. In 2018, the company said it had $825 million in revenue from hardware sales, along with payments and other fees. That only represents a sliver of Facebook’s overall $55.8 billion in sales.
Regardless, Facebook continues to fork out a lot of money for Bosworth's team. At least 4,000 people work for it in the Bay Area, plus more elsewhere around the world.
Bosworth argues that if Facebook didn’t lead the way with these new technologies, it would miss its chance to create a new generation of hardware specifically designed for Facebook users.
The following has been edited for length and clarity:
What’s the backstory to your move to the AR/VR unit?
Bosworth: Two years ago in July, I was on paternity leave with my second child. Mark was over at the house holding my daughter, who at that point was three or four weeks old. Kind of out of the blue he said, “You should come work on AR/VR.” I said, “First, you have to give my daughter back. That’s too much leverage.”
I was a bit of a skeptic. These are hard challenges, and it’s going to take a long time. I said, “Well, I’ll think about it.” And he said, “I guess you can think about it.”
What convinced you?
The team I had in place while I was on paternity leave was executing really well. The second was Mark was really serious about the investment level, and so we went for it.
At the time, there wasn’t a single team. It was a collection of different teams. When I took the role, we consolidated the pieces into one. We kind of worked backward from what I thought was important about these technologies to get to the scope of the investment. This can’t be VR only for gaming. It has to be for people to collaborate, to remap how people feel and connect. Mark agreed with me.
Do you think it will be harder for Facebook to sell consumers AR/VR products given its spotty history with user privacy?
As an organization, Facebook has to earn people’s trust. We know that. But the entire category has to earn people’s trust. You’re putting a thing on someone’s face. The entire category has to do this work to help people understand that these [devices] have sensors.
What are your greatest challenges as it relates to introducing new hardware?
The hardest challenge is getting a consumer feedback loop going—knowing what’s working and not working for them. Coming from web and mobile, you put software out and get to see people use it almost immediately. You could move so quickly in advancing the technology and making it what consumers want it to be. In hardware, that flip is much slower.
How closely do you work with Mark on AR/VR?
Day to day, I do have autonomy. He is enthusiastic about this work, so we really are partnering. I’m talking to him multiple times a week. He’s at every stage helping shape the ideas, shape the products. He’s a member of the team. He’s not coming in as the CEO. You respect Mark’s intuition. It has been a pretty effective guiding light for a long time.
What’s your take on the competition?
There’s a tremendous amount of investment in augmented reality and virtual reality. The more technologists, the more likely it is someone will find the combination of features and software and form factor that unlocks the value for consumers. Once these platforms exist, that’s room for us to foster greater human connection. It also allows us to learn from others’ mistakes and successes, as they will from ours.
What do you say to skeptics of the progress of Facebook’s AR/VR efforts?
It’s on us to show them with the work we’re doing that the tech is real. People forget that Facebook has adapted to technological change, most famously in 2012 with the shift to mobile. We were a website company. Now we’re successfully using the mobile platform to connect people. [AR/VR] is another … platform shift. Facebook has a good track record of changing the consumer landscape.
How much investment is going into new hardware products like AR glasses?
It’s a big effort. One of the things that Mark has always been thoughtful about is putting together a large enough team to accomplish the goal. If there are not enough people, you’re just wasting everyone’s time. We work close together on the vision and try to build a team that’s the right size to accomplish that.
What should people know about the future?
The scope of our ambition is so much bigger than what’s on the surface. We’re proud of Portal and Oculus, but those represent only a portion of what we’re trying to accomplish, which is to pioneer a generation of platforms that put human connection at the center.