During the 80s, communication revolved around the landline telephone, before shifting to calls and texts on mobiles in the late ‘90s and jumping to internet-powered instant messaging in the 2010s with the rise of apps. Now Facebook, which already owns the world’s two most popular messaging apps – Messenger and WhatsApp – wants us to strap on virtual reality (VR) headsets and start socialising with friends and family in virtual worlds.
The social network launched Facebook Spaces, its own VR app for its Oculus Rift VR headset, as a beta back in April. The app hopes to mimic hanging out with friends in person, but in a virtual environment magiced up by VR – a digital space occupied by cartoonish avatars generated from your Facebook profile pictures.
If the notion sounds a bit contrived, it’s actually incredibly fun. After firing up the Rift headset and Touch controllers and logging into Facebook, you’re presented with a choice of your most recent Facebook profile pictures to create your cartoon character from. The app uses image recognition technology to work out the basics of your appearance – skin, hair and eye colour, whether you’re wearing glasses or not – and presents you with an avatar to customise as you see fit.
Cartoon heroes: the avatars are great
Mine was amusingly accurate, it could tell I was pale with long blonde hair and blue eyes, meaning I didn’t have to tweak it at all. Once you’re happy with your appearance, you’re transported to a circular room with a virtual table. The table acts as the central point of the room,with a console housing menus for various activities, including drawing in the air using a virtual marker pen, talking a virtual selfie to upload directly to your Facebook feed, make calls to friends via Messenger and even the ability to broadcast your adventures directly to your friends via livestreaming tool Facebook Live.
Oculus Rift has arrived in the UK, and it’s (almost) amazing
While you can wander around by physically walking, you’ll rely on the Touch controllers to pick objects up, selecting options by stabbing at them with an index finger and changing the expression on your avatar’s face by swiveling their little joysticks with your thumbs. The headset detects when you’re speaking, laughing, nodding or shaking your head, meaning your avatar mirrors your movements.
Other friends with Rift headsets can join you inside Facebook Spaces, and those without can participate in the video calls or by commenting on the real-time Facebook Live streams. It doesn’t work perfectly, as I found the Messenger calls took a long time to connect and were quite poor video and audio quality when they did.
Facebook Spaces is about connecting with friends, not strangers
Being able to connect to your non-Rift owning Facebook friends is a big strength of Spaces: it takes VR from a solitary, disconnected activity to a social one that’s not only engaging, but enjoyable. It’s also the first VR app to have a proper go at encouraging communication with people you already know, instead of competing against strangers in games.
Connecting with existing friends and family was the key goal behind Spaces, explains Rachel Franklin, Facebook’s head of social VR, and former The Sims executive at EA.
“These are people you already have a relationship with,” she explains. “If we can put you in a place with meaningful content and experiences: giving you your Facebook photos and videos and things that you care about, that’s exciting for us. You can do more than you could do on just a video call: you can show things, draw things, bring up funny cat videos if you want.”
VR designed as a safe and welcoming, not scary space
The developers behind the app were keen to make Spaces feel like a safe and welcoming space, which aren’t emotions everybody necessarily associated with VR, she adds. “It’s easy to think of VR as something for somebody else: ‘Oh, that’s scary, or ‘It’s this funny piece of technology, I’m gonna be isolated and have to shoot things’. It has so many more applications than that – it brings people closer together, and that’s a pretty powerful thing.”
How many people Spaces will bring closer together is the question. The Rift while an “amazingly powerful piece of hardware”, is currently lagging behind its rivals PlayStation VR and HTC’s Vive in terms of sales, and Facebook’s recent decision to temporarily slash £200 off the price of the headset and controllers (currently priced at £399) seems a strategic business decision to invigorate sales.
Facebook Spaces is a clever and thoroughly entertaining experience, but needs to attract and eventually maintain a greater number users to stand a chance of toppling Apple’s Facetime and Microsoft’s Skype as the go-to video chatting platforms. Oculus is rumoured to be working on a £200 Rift headset free from wires and the need for a powerful PC to run it, which looks like the best decision Facebook could make at this stage. Spaces is enjoyable enough to change the mind of VR-naysayers, as that’s why it deserves the chance to flourish. I hope it gets it.