Developers See Endless Possibilities and Pitfalls With Social VR After Testing Facebook Spaces

Will it drive people together or apart?

With Facebook Spaces, users can take virtual reality selfies of their avatars.
Marty Swant

While Facebook’s VR world might seem at first glance as gimmicky and depressing (which it likely is if you have too much fun and ditch all your real friends), F8 attendees who stood in long lines to try Spaces said they were impressed with the product.

At its annual F8 developers conference this week in San Francisco, Facebook gave the most detailed glimpse of Facebook Spaces, the company’s first social VR platform. The software—still in beta but now available to anyone with a Facebook account and an Oculus Rift headset—brings users far beyond the news feed and into a world that at times feels like a cartoon and at others like a pixelated documentary.

But it can be pretty entertaining—at least for a while. And if the social network has its way with the future of social VR, we’ll all soon be hanging out in 360 videos as cartoon versions of ourselves.

Nishtha Dalal, a product designer at Intuit, was one of the many who tried Spaces on the second day of F8. She said that while the initial demo presented during the keynote seemed “a little messed up”—she mentioned a girl in a video spending her birthday alone in VR—the actual product eventually seemed more appealing.

“It’s a little Black Mirrory, I don’t know,” she told Adweek, referencing the futuristic show that imagines a potentially darker version of a tech-driven future. “When I saw the demo yesterday, (the birthday girl) was happy cutting a fake cake, I was like ‘Dude, it’s your birthday. Go out.’”

Dalal said while it still felt “a little dark,” it could be a good way for her to someday virtually connect with her friends and family back home in Mumbai.

“To me, it felt really dystopian, but in terms of the actual product, it’s done so well,” she said. “It’s really hands on. When you pick something up, it actually makes you feel like you’re picking something up. It’s kind of crazy.”

Trying it out with Dalal was Joanne Magbitang, a product designer at Wealthsimple, who said she had a similar feeling of someday being able to feel like she’s back home with family in the Philippines.

“Seeing somebody do it from the outside, it just looks like they’re really closed out,” Magbitang said. “But in reality being that person on the other said feels like a totally immersive social experience. I would be happy to sit down on my couch and if my boyfriend is 12 hours away, we could just watch a movie together. I mean, we still do, but on Netflix it’s like three, two, one go. But this time, we’re just kind of together.”

However, if Facebook wants to make virtual reality standard among its users, it will need to find a way to get headsets in every household. Even some people who enjoyed Spaces said it’s not enough to get them to spend at least $1,000 on an Oculus Rift headset and the desktop computer it currently requires.

Others were more willing. LC Carrier, CEO of the chatbot developer Chatbet, said he would pay to have the right gear, since he believes a content revolution is coming.

“That definitely will change entertainment and sport, how you will hang out with your friends and how you will chill out,” he said. “It’s really fun, and it’s only the beginning. I can see where they’re going. I can see my grandmother using it.”

The first thing you do when you sign into Spaces is create an animated version of yourself to interact with other users within the VR world. Of course, that requires signing into Facebook, which then pulls in six photos of the person for Facebook to analyze with artificial intelligence and turn into an avatar. Users can then tweak the avatar to change characteristics like hair, glasses, skin complexion and clothing.

Rachel Franklin, who joined Facebook last year from EA Arts, where she was an executive producer for The Sims 4, leads Facebook’s social VR unit.

“This is the easiest it’s ever been to bring the real you into VR,” she said. “So when your friends and family join your space, it’s just like really being together.”

Ironically, the avatars look very much like characters made with Bitmoji—an app that Snapchat now owns—which Facebook has been mercilessly mimicking for the past year. But that’s where the comparisons stop, because with the Oculus technology, the avatar replicates real-life facial expressions, like when a person smiles. Users can also make their avatar smirk or laugh, but that requires pressing buttons on the controls.

Within customized spaces, users will be able to enter animated rooms, movie scenes or 360-degree videos from around the world. They can also open a digital screen for watching videos or viewing photos, draw VR shapes or take selfies that can then be saved or posted to Facebook. (Users can even do a video call with Messenger to let their avatar talk with someone in the real world.)

Arguably one of the best available features is the ability to feel immersed within a 360-video, which has the potential to become more of an immediate opportunity for brands. For example, one early option included in the beta is a 360-degree Star Wars scene sponsored by Nissan. While it’s still early, it’s seems likely that other brands, media companies and movie studios will also be able to upload their 360-degree videos to Facebook.

If Facebook plans to build out these 360-degree worlds, it’s going to require a lot of 360-degree content. And while many brands and media companies are already experimenting with 360-degree cameras, they’re nowhere near as common with everyday users. And if they want to someday let people virtually join their friends and family in real life, they’re going to need 360-degree cameras to become much more popular. (That’s probably one of the reasons why Facebook gave each of the 4,000 attendees at F8 a free Gioroptic iO 360 camera, which easily attaches to iOS and Android phones.)

“As a player fully invested in all aspects of the VR market, Facebook realizes that it can’t achieve widespread VR adoption without increasing demand for immersive experiences,” said Forrester analyst Erna Alfred Liousas. “Providing access to 360 video creation devices is one way to do this as more players increase interest and investment in this space. As a result, F8 accomplishes two things: it inspires developers to continue pushing the boundaries of the possible through the Facebook ecosystem and it gives Facebook a method to keep the lines of communication open with the players that may potentially accelerate their journey to VR.”

Brian Blau, an analyst with Gartner, said he was surprised how much time Facebook devoted to VR and also to augmented reality during its keynote talks both days. He said it’s clear that Facebook is taking video “very seriously.”

“You have to think there is a camera revolution that’s going on—not just the sort of dedicated cameras that we used to carry to digital ones to smart phones,” he said. “But now they have a very different type of technology behind them.”

Later this year, VR could get a big publicity boost when “Ready Player One,” Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the popular sci-fi novel by the same name hits theaters nationwide. The book, which features an orphan in the year 2044, will paint a picture of a much more advanced platform, where people live in a much more dystopian world with much better hardware. Some critics described it as a mixture of The Matrix and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Facebook’s technology is nowhere near as advanced as the book’s description of it, but in these early days it feels as immersive. (Thankfully, there is a digital watch on the avatar’s wrist to help keep track of time.)

Already, the amount of time spent even with regular smartphone apps continues to increase—though they are far less immersive than virtual reality. According to a report this month by eMarketer, adults in the U.S. will send around 2 hours and 25 minutes using mobile apps every day—up 10.3 percent from last year. That’s expected to increase by 10 minutes next year and another 10 minutes in 2019. Use among boomers is also on the rise. According to Nielsen’s research last year, adults over the age of 50 were using social media for 4 hours and 9 minutes.

But while people might decry the fact that Facebook will someday isolate us even further from our real friends and family, one might argue we’re already at that point—spending hours endlessly scrolling through our feeds on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter or swiping through profiles on Tinder. But like a lot of other aspects of social media, will we consume it, or will it consume us?

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