Earlier this month, I told you about the emerging world of social networking in virtual reality. But lurking on the sidelines of this newly active space is Facebook's own social VR behemoth known as Oculus Rooms.
This is where the strategy behind the marriage of Facebook and Oculus begins to reveal itself.
In some ways, the mobile version of Oculus Rooms is as powerful an experience as the Oculus Home app on the higher-end Oculus Rift.
Currently only available for Gear VR users, Oculus Rooms first brings you to the same virtual apartment displayed when using the Oculus Rift. Then, when you're ready to launch into a social encounter with someone you've connected with on Facebook, you simply select the Party option and you're brought into a new virtual space with three distinct areas.
Above: The Oculus Home menu on Gear VR is almost identical to the one displayed on the Oculus Rift. IMAGE: OCULUS
The application launcher and TV area
First, there's the Group Applications Launcher, which serves as the app's home base, allowing you to launch various VR apps or move to other areas in the apartment.
Next is the TV Area, a semi-circular couch that presents a variety of video content that you can watch on a large, virtual cinema screen. You can either watch popular, pre-selected videos, or you can watch Facebook videos from you or your friends.
One cool aspect I noticed is that the videos continue to play even if you move to another part of the apartment, effectively enhancing the sense that you're in a real space where actions have impact.
The chat area
Just to the left of the Group Applications Launcher you'll find the chat area. Unlike Facebook's web and mobile social spaces, which are generally focused on text or live video, in Oculus Rooms your VR avatar serves as your "body" and social interface with others.
The major difference between using your avatar on the Oculus Rift (which offers Touch controllers that move virtual hands), and Oculus Rooms on the Gear VR is that on the latter you just have your avatar's head (no hands) and a beam of light serving as your virtual base (or body).
Another key difference from the Oculus Rift experience is the fact that there's a very limited amount of customization that you can add to your avatar in the Gear VR version of Oculus Room. Basically, the options are male and female and just a few hairstyles. Beyond that, it's pretty basic, for now.
Above: This is where you first land when you enter the swank virtual apartment in Oculus Rooms. IMAGE: OCULUS
The games area
Finally, the area that's likely to get the most use in Oculus Rooms is the Games Table. Currently, it consists of just three games: Lights (a pattern-matching game), Words (a kind of VR version of Blind Man's Bluff), and Pairs (a card-matching game).
Yes, the games are simple, but at this early stage in social VR, keeping things fairly basic and focusing on pushing people to engage rather than forcing them to unpack complicated games seems like the smart approach.
Your dream apartment in VR
Perhaps the best aspect of Oculus Rooms — aside from the social engagement opportunities — are its lush aesthetics.
If you're a fan of the subtle touches in the Oculus Rift virtual apartment — the wrinkled rug, the crackling fireplace, and the stunning environment just outside the apartment's windows, featuring floating homes in the distance — you're in for a treat. The mobile Oculus Rooms experience is just as stunning as the higher-end constructs on the Oculus Rift, despite the mobile version's somewhat limited functionality.
Image: A view from the Chat Area in Oculus Rooms as other virtual apartments float in the distance. IMAGE: OCULUS
The future of Facebook's social VR network
One complaint that I've picked up from other Oculus Rooms users is the inability to wander around into public rooms and meet strangers. As of now, you can only do two things: either go into rooms for your own solo sessions or meet with people you've linked with via Facebook. There's no good way to find random, new people, a point that may hurt the adoption of Oculus Rooms in the short term.
Another slightly confusing aspect of Oculus Rooms on Gear VR is that fact that you need to dock your smartphone into the Gear VR in order to download the app (this isn't readily apparent to some users looking for Oculus Rooms).
Oculus has not announced when Oculus Rooms will come to the Oculus Rift, but they have confirmed that it will be sometime in 2017.
Hopefully, when that does happen, the already polished experience of Oculus Rooms will not only feature more functionality, but the ability to experience serendipity (as with AltspaceVR, vTime and others), allowing you to meet new people in a vast, virtual landscape.