“Where do you want to hang out?” Max asked me. “Do you like pandas?” Do I like pandas? This is like asking if someone likes tacos, or sunshine, or the sound a puppy makes when it curls up on your lap. I looked at him a little more closely to see if he was joking, but he just stood there, smiling a cartoon smile through his cartoon beard. “Let’s go see some pandas!” I said.
“Great!” Max held out his cartoon hand. Down the hall, the real Max—an employee at Facebook—was holding an Oculus Touch controller, but here in virtual reality his hand contained what looked like a glass sphere. He placed it on the table in front of us, and it immediately expanded outward, rushing past us, until we stood within it. “Look behind you,” he said; when I saw the panda standing on a wooden platform, I couldn’t help but laugh. The sphere we’d been pulled into was a 360-degree video of a Chinese nature reserve.
So much for FarmVille.
When Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, the obvious question—besides “Seriously? Two billion dollars?”—was what Facebook was planning to do with a virtual reality company. CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at the time that VR would be “the most social platform ever,” but what would that mean? People joked about giant newsfeeds towering over your head in VR, or Facebook ads popping up in the middle of a videogame you were playing. No one joked about pandas. But that was before Facebook Spaces. The VR app, which I tried last week at Facebook’s campus and is now available in beta, does much more than just let Facebook friends hang out in VR. By leveraging Facebook’s ubiquity in day-to-day life, Spaces promises to make virtual reality more personal, and more relatable, than it’s ever been.
Social VR—With Actual Friends
Virtual reality has made huge strides over the past five years, but for something that so invites interaction with other people, it’s still a starkly individual experience. If you want to experience VR with a friend, you can invite them over to use your headset, or you can…well, that’s really it. (Mobile headsets are more portable, but they also notably lack crucial ingredients of “presence,” the sensation of physically being inside a virtual space.) Even then, you’re stuck watching them have fun, or they you; you can’t both be in VR at the same time, unless you have multiple computer/headset setups. The only way to be in VR with other people is via a multiplayer experience.
Dedicated social VR apps have been popping up for a few years to address that issue. However, they all work on the same principle: either you convince your one friend who has a headset to log in at the same time, or you hang out in VR with strangers—an endeavor which, in these early-adopter days, can feel like firing up Tinder in the Mos Eisley cantina. Chat-room anonymity is a hallowed internet tradition, but when you’re sitting around a VR campfire, surrounded by avatars that may or may not look anything like their owners’ IRL selves (and as a rule you can bet on “not”), it can also be unsettling.
When you launch Spaces from within your Oculus Rift headset, though, it logs into your Facebook account. The same one that you, along with nearly 2 billion other people on the planet, use on a regular basis. The same one you’ve already populated with all the information that Spaces now can serve back to you—like, for instance, a selection of your photos that you can use to create an avatar.
Or all your other Facebook friends who have a Rift and Oculus Touch controllers. Or any 360-degree content in your timeline that you can now launch around yourself. Or even just your regular old 2-D photos that you can flip through in the solitude of your own private Idaho. Like, literally, your own private Idaho. (Assuming you have a 360-degree photo of Idaho.)
Virtual Dinner Parties for Everyone
Admittedly, there’s not a whole lot to do in Spaces once you’re hanging out. There’s a marker you can use to draw interactive 3-D objects, like sketching a hat, and then putting it on your friend’s head. This being the internet, there’s a mirror in which you can gaze upon your majestic cartoon countenance. (Don’t act like you wouldn’t do it.) There’s also a selfie stick, which you can use to take a VR photo of yourself and your friends, and then post that photo to your real-life Facebook feed.
That limited palette of options is a far cry from those of other social VR apps that have built platforms around shared activities like disc golf and Dungeons & Dragons. It’s also intentional. Facebook places a premium not on what you’re doing, but who you’re doing it with. Rachel Rubin Franklin, who heads up the company’s social VR efforts, likens Spaces to a dinner party rather than an infinite wonderland. “These are your Facebook friends,” she says. “That changes what you do in Spaces significantly, because you’ve already established a relationship.” In the future, she can imagine Spaces expanding its toolset, and even allowing for connections among people who aren’t Facebook friends, but for now she and her team want to see how people use it.
Virtual reality is no longer an alienating abstraction.
Before Franklin came to Facebook last October, the social VR group had already been exploring various activities: tower-defense board games; music-creation games; even the ability to design a dollhouse and then teleport into it. But the more people had to do, the team found, the more they concentrated on the activity—and the less they concentrated on each other. The group formulated a litmus test for what Spaces would include: Does it facilitate social interaction? Is it going to make my relationship with you stronger, better, more memorable? “If that’s not happening,” Franklin says, “then it doesn’t belong in here. At least not now.”
The Cool World Effect
There’s one more thing Spaces does, and it’s an important one. Mark Zuckerberg hinted at it last fall at developer conference Oculus Connect, when he and members of Facebook’s social VR team demonstrated what we now know was an early build of Spaces. During that demo, Zuckerberg was in VR, hanging out in a 360 video of his own house, then took a Messenger video call from his wife, Priscilla. She wasn’t in VR, though; instead, he saw her face on a popup screen within VR, and she saw his avatar on her own phone. At the time it felt like a scene out of Who Framed Roger Rabbit or Cool World: cartoon characters and flesh-and-blood humans co-existing in violation of all laws of physics and fiction. Now, those video Messenger calls are part of the Spaces beta, and the boundary that cordons off VR from the rest of reality has officially collapsed.
With that functionality, along with the whole selfie-stick thing, VR is no longer an alienating abstraction. It’s not that thing someone else is doing when they have a headset on; now it’s that thing you’ve seen them doing. Now it’s where they took that selfie in front of the Eiffel Tower, flashing a thumbs up, despite not having a passport. Now it’s where they are when you pick up the video Messenger call on your phone and see their cartoonish avatar peeking out at you from the bottom of the ocean. Or the International Space Station. Or a panda habitat. You’re not there with them—and whether they’re there is a question we still can’t quite answer—but you’re sharing that experience with them. And that’s exactly what Mark Zuckerberg wanted in the first place.