Facebook appoints Xiaomi exec Hugo Barra to head VR business

Barra quit Xiaomi amicably saying that the job was telling on his health

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Xiaomi (IDG Worldwide)

Facebook has appointed Xiaomi executive Hugo Barra to lead its virtual reality initiatives, including the Oculus VR business that was acquired in 2014.

The appointment was announced by the company's founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who said that Barra will lead all of Facebook's virtual reality efforts including the Oculus team.

Facebook's decision to hire Barra as vice president of virtual reality may have been influenced in part by his exposure to the Chinese market, which is forecast by IDC to account for 20 percent of worldwide virtual reality head-mounted displays next year.

"Keep in mind that China’s VR market is dramatically different from the rest of the world, be it in terms of local vendors, content, or usage models," according to Bryan Ma, vice president of devices research at IDC. 

Barra's connections and experience can help bring a more global perspective to Oculus' U.S.-centric approach thus far, Ma said in an email. "And that’s even without speculating on whether that dovetails with parent company Facebook’s China ambitions in social networking and advertising," he added. Facebook's social network website is currently blocked in China.

"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 on his Facebook page late Wednesday.

Barra said earlier this week that he was moving to Silicon Valley over three years after he quit Google to join Chinese smartphone startup Xiaomi to lead its global expansion. He said he would be moving out of his role in February to embark on a new adventure back in Silicon Valley.

During his tenure, Xiaomi expanded into Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and more recently into 20 other markets including Russia, Mexico, and Poland. But most of the success came from India and Myanmar. "We turned India from a dream into Xiaomi’s largest international market with $1 billion in annual revenues," Barra said in a post on Facebook. But the job kept him away from friends and family and had taken "a huge toll on my life and started affecting my health."

"Hugo shares my belief that virtual and augmented reality will be the next major computing platform," wrote Zuckerberg. Barra is going "to help build that future, and I'm looking forward to having him on our team," he added.

Xiaomi has already made a foray into the virtual reality market. It announced last year a VR headset last year, which was certified to work with all Google Cardboard apps and could fit some models of its phones.

Barra said in reply to Zuckerberg's welcome that he aimed to make VR a mainstream technology. He said he had 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."

Facebook said in November that it was focusing its long-term innovation roadmap around virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence and connectivity initiatives to bring more people online. It said it was investing in virtual reality content as it expects that the next phase of VR would be in software experiences.

Barra brings some star power to Facebook's VR efforts and also fills a visible gap in the Oculus management team given the recent changes there, Ma said. In December, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe stepped aside to focus on a newly created group focused on PC VR. Jon Thomason, who recently joined the Oculus team, was to lead the mobile VR group. “Together we’ll work with Mike Schroepfer, CTO of Facebook, to find a new leader for the Oculus team,” Iribe wrote in a post in December.

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