Can Social VR Let You Talk To The Real World?

Can Social VR Let You Talk To The Real World?
May 2, 2017

Steph was more positive; I was put off by a buggy experience, even after installing requisite software updates.


Your friends (and you) become cartoon avatars in Facebook virtual reality


Facebook’s aim is to let you and up to three of your distant Facebook friends hang out in the same virtual environment, such as in the lovely park by a lake where I landed, actually a static 360 image. You might otherwise end up on the Santa Monica pier, or by a campfire, which is where Steph's virtual journey began.


You use the Touch controllers to point, grab and press buttons on a control panel and other objects inside Facebook Spaces, but the software wasn’t always responsive, and I detected a bit of a lag and at times a dreaded hourglass.

We could share Facebook pictures inside Facebook Spaces. (Photo: Steph Taylor)


Some of it was on me—I didn’t initially realize I had to point with my digital index finger rather than poke with my hand to select and activate a virtual button. But Facebook Spaces lead product manager Mike Booth conceded in an interview that, “clearly we have work to do.”


“Coming up with these (VR user) interfaces and making them discoverable and intuitive is an ongoing challenge that we’re working on," je said.


Despite the hiccups, I had a good time. When Steph joined me in my virtual space it really did seem like we were inhabiting the same place and not 3,000 miles apart, living up to what Facebook accurately describes as the magical feeling of “presence.”


We could draw and doodle in the air with a virtual 3D marker, and then grab objects or put masks on our faces. We were able to share pictures (and other content) from our Facebook accounts and blow up their size. And we could snap our own goofy pics inside Spaces using a virtual selfie stick, and post them to Facebook. (Alas, the virtual selfie stick didn’t always work for me.) You could play games too. In general, I'd like more to do, to make a regular return visits more appealing. These are early days so I suspect that will happen.


Steph and I were each represented by an animated avatar that is supposed to resemble our real life selves, though I don't think I look much like my virtual alter ego. After signing into Spaces with your Facebook account credentials Facebook uses machine learning to generate the avatars based on photos you have posted on Facebook itself. (Fortunately, you can customize your avatar.)


The avatars are expressive. When you or the other person speaks, the avatar’s mouths move more or less in kind. If you smile, the avatar may also smile. You can move around each other by moving around your real space, within the constraints of wearing a tethered Oculus headset and being ever mindful of any physical barriers in the room. I could only view the avatar’s body from the waste up.


Best stunt: Your avatar in Messenger

Sharing your virtual Facebook Space on Messenger call. (Photo: Eli Blumenthal)


The coolest and most impressive stunt of all is the integration with Facebook Messenger that lets you make a call to the real world from virtual reality (or vice versa) to pals who are in Messenger but who don’t have a Rift.


Inside Facebook Spaces, the person you’re talking to through Messenger appears in a frame, and the quality of the video and audio was surprisingly good. By dragging the frame around, you can actually give your real world counterpart a tour of your virtual space. That's kind of awesome. Steph's remark: "It was on point."


For now this is a one-on-one experience, so that when Steph was talking to a friend via Messenger inside our shared space, I could see the frame but not actually see or hear the person. Facebook may expand this capability in future versions.


I should point out that Facebook’s approach to social VR—interacting in Spaces with friends and family members—differs from that of another social VR app I’ve spent time in, AltspaceVR, which lets you engage with a crowd of avatars representing real random strangers, sometimes when you're watching a performance or listening to a lecture.  Linden Lab, the company behind the Second Life online fantasy world, also has ambitions in social VR, with a venture called Project Sansar.

Stephanie Taylor using Oculus Rift, calling a friend on Facebook Messenger video. (Photo: Stephanie Taylor)


I would expect Facebook Spaces to only get better, which is critical given that any coolness factor may soon wear off. Facebook is opening Spaces to developers and also plans to make it available on other VR platforms, not just Oculus, which the company owns. No timing was given but going cross platform seems equally important, given how few people have an expensive Rift system.


Anyone who has experienced VR knows how mind blowing it can be. But it also can be a rather solitary experience inside a headset. That’s why making virtual reality social is so vital to the future success of the medium.

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