It’s some time in the future: you’re sitting at home and feel that very human need for social interaction. In the past, you might have logged onto social media, texted a friend or rang a family member, but that’s all old hat now.
Instead, you strap on virtual reality goggles and start chatting to a digital version of your friend, who is sitting at home wearing an identical headset. There’s no need to dress up: you are both represented by a cartoon avatar, and can hang out in an infinite number of virtual environments.
That’s the idea behind Facebook Spaces, the company’s new “social VR” experience, which was unveiled last night. Users wearing Facebook’s Oculus Rift headset log on, create a cartoon representation of themselves, and sit in a virtual environment with friends or family.
It's like Skype on steroids. Or as Facebook says: “Spending time with friends and family creates many of our most meaningful memories, but it’s impossible to always be physically near the people we care about. That’s where the magic of virtual reality comes in.”
It sounds good, until you see Spaces in action. Watching Facebook’s demo video last night, I just felt terribly upset for the people in it, and maybe, for the rest of us staring into this future.
The demo of Spaces starts with our first character, Jack, putting on his Oculus Rift in his kitchen and chatting with his sister, Diane, as they soar over a virtual island paradise. The two cartoons then wave goodbye as Diane receives another VR call from her friend Melissa.
Diane proceeds to show Melissa a virtual reality preview of her new apartment - “It’s amazing - no roommates!” - before another change of scene.
The final act, in a depressing twist worthy of Black Mirror, reveals that it is Melissa’s birthday. The three friends celebrate in a cyberspace amusement park with virtual balloons and hats before posting the result, a VR selfie, to Facebook.
The video is intermittently cut with scenes of the real humans at home wearing VR headsets: Diane, cross-legged on her bed waving at thin air; Melissa, celebrating her birthday alone at her desk, holding up a pretend selfie stick.
The world’s biggest social network is often accused, counter-intuitively, of making us interact less. Instead of communicating face-to-face, addictive algorithms keep us glued to screens, manufacturing an artificial version of our real lives (a different Facebook feature announced last night will allow users to superimpose a virtual coffee cup next to theirs: “You can add a second coffee cup so it looks like you’re not having breakfast alone!”, Mark Zuckerberg chirped).
Facebook Spaces is the logical conclusion of this: an unblemished pretence of interaction without a drop of authenticity. Facebook has staked its future on VR, but the implementation looks decidedly antisocial.
Apple’s Tim Cook put it best last year. "Virtual reality sort of encloses and immerses the person into an experience that can be really cool but probably has a lower commercial interest over time," he said. Like many other tech companies, Apple sees more potential in augmented reality - the virtual world colliding with the real world, rather than replacing it.
The strangeness of VR in one photo
To be fair, Facebook also has big ambitions in AR, playing catch-up after being blindsided by Snapchat. But VR is the one it has staked its future on.
It says that Spaces represents just 0.1 per cent of its virtual reality ambitions. But Facebook's first steps look more like an antisocial network.