Facebook aims to make social network more immersive through VR

Facebook aims to make social network more immersive through VR

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SAN JOSE — Facebook changed the way people communicate, allowing them to quickly share their thoughts, photos and other memories with friends and families through a click of a blue button.

Kristin Crist, of San Jose, tries out Facebook Spaces at Oculus Connect 4 at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Gary Reyes/ Bay Area News Group)
Kristin Crist, of San Jose, tries out Facebook Spaces at Oculus Connect 4 at the San Jose McEnery Convention Center in San Jose, California, on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017. (Gary Reyes/ Bay Area News Group) 

But as the tech firm tries to get 1 billion people into virtual reality, it’s also trying to transform how we socialize online by making it feel like we’re physically next to our loved ones.

The company started testing a way to use Facebook in virtual reality this year. Called Facebook Spaces, it allows users who have a virtual reality headset to explore new places, play games, draw, make calls, film live videos and even take selfies in a virtual world through an avatar.

Users are able to post the memories they make in the virtual world to their Facebook feeds. They can fish, play with dice or even watch an animated film by putting on an Oculus Rift headset.

“Maybe I’m in a long-distance relationship and I just want to feel like I’m in the same room with my loved one,” said Rachel Franklin, who heads Facebook’s social VR team, in an interview. “Will this open up the ability to connect with someone?”

The company sees virtual reality as a new avenue of communication, but it acknowledges that it’s still learning from how people are socializing in virtual reality. The tech firm will be adding more activities to Facebook Spaces later this year, including watching live, 360-degree videos. Users will also be able to share 3-D sculptures they finish in virtual reality onto their News Feed.

But most people still don’t own a virtual reality headset, a hurdle that Facebook-owned Oculus has been trying to tackle by slashing prices. The tech firm said Wednesday it will release a $199 wireless virtual reality headset next year and is slashing the price of its Rift headset and Touch controllers.

“I don’t see why people wouldn’t accept (virtual reality) as a natural social environment. But today, people still don’t have the devices. They still think it’s a bit odd. They’re not sure what they can do, or why they should do it,” said Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner.

In Facebook Spaces, the avatars gather around a virtual table, but don’t have legs to move around. Franklin said that confining the avatars to one space allows them to focus on socializing.

From perfecting facial expressions and gestures to building more activities in virtual reality, there are still many technical hurdles the company needs to overcome.

“When we have the responsibility of taking over your eyes and your hands and your ears, we have to actually create a full-bodied experience,” Franklin said. “We’re building that up, and I think one of the challenges is just how can we offer you enough utility in that channel of connection?”

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