Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized for what many perceived as a tone-deaf move, demonstrating virtual reality (VR) features on Facebook while virtually visiting the devastated island of Puerto Rico.
The post, which went live on Monday, shows a cartoon avatar of Zuckerberg being live-streamed in VR talking to a cartoon avatar of Rachel Franklin, Facebook’s head of social VR. It was used to demonstrate Facebook Spaces, which allows Facebook’s users to create 3-D virtual avatars of themselves, using an Oculus Rift VR headset.
“One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality, is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” Zuckerberg said. Franklin followed up, saying, “Crazy to feel like you’re in the middle of it.”
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Zuckerberg was lambasted in the comment section on the post. One user wrote, “Is this a joke? The Puerto Ricans are suffering and you are using our tragedy for this?? Heartless billionaire.”
Another wrote that Zuckerberg “can’t let a good tragedy go to waste. He has to promote Facebook. Typical. All he talks about (is) Facebook instead of victims and their suffering.”
Zuckerberg responded, writing, “One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy. My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”
When a commenter wrote that it was distracting to see avatars talking about a real natural disaster, Zuckerberg added, “I hear that. When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.”
Others took to Twitter to express their dismay.
Facebook and Oculus are scheduled to have a press event on Wednesday, dubbed Oculus Connect 4. Zuckerberg wrote, “I’ll be going live and announcing some of the new work we’ve done with the community.” Facebook purchased Oculus for $2 billion in March 2014.
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Asking for forgiveness
The apology comes after the tech exec asked for forgiveness during the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur for ways his “work was used to divide people.”
“Tonight concludes Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews when we reflect on the past year and ask forgiveness for our mistakes,” he wrote. “For those I hurt this year, I ask forgiveness and I will try to be better. For the ways my work was used to divide people rather than bring us together, I ask forgiveness and I will work to do better. May we all be better in the year ahead, and may you all be inscribed in the book of life.”
Last month, Zuckerberg said that Facebook would work to “get Puerto Rico back online” after the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a category 4 storm, which ravaged the country. Facebook donated $1.5 million to NetHope and the World Food Programme, as well as donating ads “to get critical information to people in the region” and teams of facebook workers “to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance to get the systems up and running.”
He has also helped raise over $120,000 for Save the Children to help support the recovery of Puerto Rico.
Three weeks after the storm, just over 10 percent of the island has power and roughly 33 percent of cell towers have been restored, according to the Puerto Rico government’s website.
Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia. Fox News’ James Rogers contributed to this report.