Facebook Spaces is an awkward reminder of how far VR is from the mainstream
Remember when Facebook acquired Oculus for $2bn back in 2014? Well, Facebook is now putting its mouth where its money is, with the release of Facebook Spaces – a virtual reality area where you can “get together, have fun and share experiences with people you care about.” A bit like a park. Or a pub. Only virtual – and always tethered to Mark Zuckerberg’s kingdom and its ad networks.
Maybe it’s because, a decade ago, I read a lot of dystopian fiction for my dissertation – but this doesn’t quite sit right with me. Nonetheless, here’s what you need to know: Facebook Spaces is available now for Oculus Rift. It allows you to create a 3D cartoony avatar of yourself, and then hang out with up to three other people as if you were in the same physical space. You can watch 360-degree videos, share photos and take selfies. All things you could do in real life, just without the tedium of having to leave your house.
As a technology journalist, I should look at Facebook Spaces with a sense of wonder and excitement, but I just can’t convince my brain that it’s either wonderful or exciting. While a virtual space should put some of the humanity back into a site where emotions are reduced to likes and emojis, this video somehow leaves it feeling even more synthetic. Yes, it’s essentially an advert, and adverts tend to convey feelings as if the actors have only read about emotions in books, but it’s more than that. It just feels like it misunderstands how people actually like to use technology – it’s almost always more basic than the innovators would like.
As I see it, Facebook is popular because it’s easy and passive: people tend to check in absent-mindedly, multiple times a day, and get a digest of what their friends and friendish contacts are up to. They might like a post here, or send a birthday wish there, but the chances of them sending a real, physical birthday card without Facebook’s intervention would be slim.
In other words, Facebook is popular because it’s a low-maintenance way of keeping weaker friendships alive.
That’s pretty much the opposite of how Facebook Spaces is shown in the video. This isn’t a quick scan of your timeline on the bus, or on a tea break. This is a dedicated moment where everyone has to be at home at a pre-planned time, tethered to their computer via Oculus Rift. Now, putting on a VR headset isn’t too time-consuming, but it is just fiddly enough for it to be a drag, and you’re talking about that process for four people in four different places.
You wouldn’t make that effort for just anyone, so the one area I can see that being useful is best friends separated by timezones and continents. But it doesn’t look like much of a substitute to actually hanging out, does it? Social networks with avatars have been tried before, and generally people lose interest when they realise the other stuff gets in the way of the social interaction they came for in the first place. VR should make it a bit more natural, although the cartoonish looks and weird ticks (see how the avatar laughs 59 seconds into the video) will break that illusion pretty quickly.
So while the technology is clearly very impressive…
Cost aside, can you seriously see this as the future of communication?