Taking a selfie in virtual reality. I couldn't work out how to smile.Shona Ghosh/Business Insider
- Facebook launched a virtual reality app, Facebook Spaces, in April
- It's available in beta, and only to people who own an Oculus Rift VR headset
- Facebook hired Rachel Franklin, previously general manager of "The Sims" at EA, to run social VR
- Franklin said Spaces will expand outside Oculus Rift to encourage more people to start using virtual reality with Facebook
Right now, you're used to browsing Facebook in 2D, looking at the website or app on your phone, tablet, or desktop.
But there's a 3D version of Facebook where you can look at your photos, explore virtual worlds, and take selfies in virtual reality. It's called Facebook Spaces, and it launched in April on Oculus Rift, the virtual reality (VR) headset also produced by Facebook.
Facebook Spaces is only available in beta, and there's probably a tiny fraction of people using it at the moment — the company doesn't give out user numbers — because most people don't own an Oculus Rift headset.
But Facebook's head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, told Business Insider that the goal was to get as many Facebook users as possible using Spaces. We took a dive into Facebook Spaces with Franklin to see what it's like.
Facebook's head of social VR Rachel Franklin (left)Shona Ghosh/Business Insider
To get started on Facebook Spaces, you first need an Oculus Rift headset and a decent enough computer setup to run virtual reality applications.
Once you're set up, you can access Facebook Spaces for free through the Oculus Store.
You need to log in to your Facebook account to use Spaces. Once you do that, you'll need to create your avatar. Spaces will pull in a bunch of your recent profile photos, then use that to create an avatar for you which you can tweak.
This is how I ended up looking. In case you're wondering, I'm wearing a virtual crown:
Shona Ghosh/Business Insider
As you can see, you're not really meant to look like a real person — no one has legs in Facebook Spaces, for example.
It wasn't totally intuitive. The Oculus Rift comes with "Touch" controllers which you hold in your hands. You can toggle little joysticks on each controller to change your facial expression. I couldn't work out how to do it, which is why my avatar looks miserable in all the screenshots.
The controllers also let you grip and pick up objects, like a pencil to draw with. You use your middle finger though, which isn't a natural movement, so it feels like holding a pencil the way a child might.
But there are realistic touches. The Touch controllers track your movements so your arms move pretty convincingly in VR. The Rift also knows when you're talking and nodding, so your hair and mouth move accordingly.
Once you're in, anyone in your social network can come and join you in Spaces — provided they've also got an Oculus Rift. You can choose to have different backdrops, like an underwater world.
The social aspect is the most interesting part of Spaces. If you have ever strapped a virtual reality box onto your head, you'll know the experience is a fundamentally lonely one. Being trapped in a virtual environment playing zombie games is strangely stressful, and you can only do it for a short period before wanting to talk to someone.
Facebook Spaces also lets you be more playful than real life. When Franklin joined me in virtual reality for our interview, she saw I was wearing a crown, and wanted an accessory to wear. She drew herself a bow using Spaces' paint function, and asked me to pin it to her. This isn't something I would normally do with an interviewee in real life.
You can see a clip of how it looked:
Spaces has tried to weave in normal Facebook functionality so that people without VR headsets can still experience it. For example, you can livestream from Spaces to Facebook.
The video will appear on your Facebook feed exactly like a normal live video — except it'll be your virtual reality self.
Here's me livestreaming from a virtual underwater environment:
You can also make video calls using Facebook Messenger, though I found it laggy making a call from inside Spaces.
Other things you can do include taking selfies, looking in a "mirror" to adjust your avatar, dive into 360-degree videos or virtual environments, and do 3D-drawing.
I was only in Facebook Spaces for a short time, but it feels like functionality is pretty basic. It'll be a lot more fun when you can play games, or do more interactive things with people not in VR. Currently you can't play any games inside Spaces with someone else, and that feels like an obvious miss.
This is how a Facebook Selfie turns out.Shona Ghosh/Business Insider
But Facebook's thinking about how to make Spaces more fun, said Franklin.
"It's early days for these features," she said. "We imagine things that could be cooler — for example, you can [currently] grab a comment on a live video and put it in space. That's only possible in VR. We think about how someone on the other end could participate in an interesting way. What if their 'Haha!' reaction actually does something fun with effects, or how could they affect what's happening in VR? We will look to make the features people are interested in more robust, as well as adding new things to do."
Facebook's big barrier in virtual reality is that no one uses it
Franklin told Business Insider that the goal for Spaces is to "get as many people as possible to connect to each other."
That's difficult when so few people own the right kit to use it, and it isn't clear that virtual reality will ever take off.
According to SuperData figures, Oculus sold just 240,000 Rift units in the whole of 2016.
That is not just a small fraction of Facebook's active user base, it's a tiny fraction. Facebook was nearing 2 billion active users last month, and Oculus' unit sales are a ten thousandth of that number.
The Oculus Rift is a clunky, expensive piece of kit.Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Franklin told Business Insider: "It's super early days for VR in general. So we think about how can we create experiences that are useful for people and that resonate with people. That's the phase we're in right now, versus expecting 2 billion people to necessarily run out and be in VR right now.
"That learning phase is important to find the magic utility that will make people aspire to be in VR ... really I believe it's a way to connect people when they can't be together. That's meaningful."
Facebook Spaces will expand from Oculus Rift to other platforms. According to those SuperData stats, more than 2 million people own a Samsung Gear VR headset, so it makes sense to expand.
"We will want to bring this to other platforms," said Franklin. "We started on Oculus Rift because it's incredibly high-end hardware. We're learning so much ... but yes, we will want to take it to lots of different platforms."
A common criticism for VR is that it's a sad replacement for reality. Why would you swap the ability to talk to a loved one face-to-face for talking to an inferior, cartoon version of them? And why do a VR video call when you can do a normal video call?
Franklin, obviously, doesn't buy this argument. She argued that Spaces could be a good option for people in long-distance relationships who can take a virtual trip together, or new mothers who can't leave the house for long.
"I think that texting or Messenger is still a wonderful way to quickly communicate, and video calling is another useful way," she said. "We hope this is another way, the ability to pull the world and media and experiences and drawings to you in an immersive way. It’s just a different kind of communication vehicle."
Before I actually tried Spaces, I couldn't see the point of it. The whole idea reminded me of a meme that went viral when Facebook launched its second News Feed.
But Spaces, if anything, highlighted the limitations of Facebook in 2D. It reminded me of when games like "Draw Something" and "Words With Friends" became incredibly popular on Facebook — it was that same enjoyment you get from live games and experiences. I'm not convinced yet that people would want to use Spaces for things like Messenger calls though.
It was a genuinely fun way to experience VR, but its success hinges on so many external factors. I enjoyed using it, but I wouldn't pay £400 to buy an Oculus Rift to experience it again.