MENLO PARK, Calif. — Facebook just took one step closer to realizing a sci-fi dream of hanging with your friends in a digital dimension.
While it’s not quite Star Trek’s holodeck, Facebook Spaces allows those with Facebook-owned Oculus Rift and Touch virtual reality hardware to share photos, videos, drawings and more in a VR realm populated by cartoon avatars.
The VR platform was announced Tuesday by social VR chief Rachel Rubin Franklin during the keynote at F8, Facebook’s annual developer conference unfolding this week in San Jose. The beta version of Facebook Spaces rolls out immediately.
“We are fundamentally a people-first computing platform,” Franklin told USA TODAY after a preview of Spaces Monday at the company’s headquarters. “At the end of the day, people need to be with people they care about. So the question we asked was, if they can’t do it in person, what’s the next best thing?”
The next best thing actually was previewed last October by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who demoed a first pass at Spaces before an audience at the Oculus Connect conference. Zuckerberg and colleagues were shown in avatar form sharing photos and taking selfies in a 360-degree rendition of Zuckerberg’s home.
That same experience now awaits anyone in possession of Oculus Rift VR goggles and its Touch controllers, a $600 purchase that also requires a powerful PC that can cost up to $1,000. Facebook friends you invite into this VR space must also own Oculus gear.
While Oculus and its big ticket VR hardware peers — including Sony PlayStation VR and HTC Vive — can deliver state-of the-art realism, their price points continue to be a barrier to entry for all but hardcore gaming enthusiasts. Facebook maintains that it is pleased with sales of Oculus, even if it recently cut down on the number of goggle demo stations inside Best Buy stores.
Another roadblock for virtual reality is that analysts continue to tout the comparatively populist potential of smartphone-based augmented reality, as evidenced by last summer’s Pokemon Go augmented reality craze. Facebook on Tuesday made a big push into augmented reality, opening its camera platform to developers and laying out a vision where Facebook’s apps will display digital information on the real world and add digital objects to the physical world.
“We’re making the camera the first augmented reality platform,” Zuckerberg said in the F8 keynote address.
But while VR remains expensive and in the hands of few, it is capable of teleporting humans into virtual worlds in a way that AR cannot.
Although Facebook Spaces at present remains rudimentary, a demo conjures up what may be possible with more computing power. The ultimate social space would find high-powered digital scanners replicating your movements and gestures in real time and placing that virtual you in a group space with other digitally-teleported humans.
Your avatar, created from your Facebook photos
For now, however, here’s what you’re getting when you step into Spaces: Oculus goggles on your head and Touch controllers in your hands, you’re able to select from a short list of digital avatars that already look like you. That’s because Facebook uses machine learning algorithms to go through photos on your Facebook page to create an avatar with your general looks, which can be customized at will.
Once you’ve got your avatar set up, you meet up with invited friends around a virtual circular table. The table keeps people from wandering around the room, Franklin says.
Tools laid out in front of you grant access to anything archived on your Facebook page – photos, videos, 360-degree videos — as well as things like a selfie stick (yes, you’d be taking photos of you and your avatar friends) and a pen.
The pen actually is a bit of a revelation. It’s simple, but the effect of grabbing it with a touch controller and writing on thin air is riveting. Think Harold and the Purple Crayon, the classic children’s book about a boy whose drawings come to life.
In Spaces, whatever you draw suddenly has a physical property, as if frozen, and can be grasped with your VR hand and moved around your virtual world. Draw a crown, then grab it, and place on your friend’s avatar’s head. Wild.
In the demo, a Facebook employee who served as my social VR friend shared photos of his favorite artists, pulled up a trailer for the next Star Wars film that dominated the VR room, and selected a 360-degree image of a Fourth of July party that put us in the center of it. We could even have taken a Messenger video call in VR.
One noticeable Spaces drawback was that any photo or 360-degree video that was not a high-definition image ended up annoyingly blurry. Here, Oculus Rift’s ability to render amazing graphics was compromised. But presumably that can be remedied by equipping your Facebook feed with high definition assets.
“Done right, VR gives you a feeling of total immersion,” says Franklin. “You actually feel like you’re in the room with somebody. You forget you’re avatars.”
But is it safe?
Facebook has been grappling of late with destructive and dangerous uses of its platform, from the proliferation of fake news to filmed killings uploaded to Facebookand other violence, including rape and torture, on Facebook Live. There have been concerns that the trolling that’s plagued other online platforms will find its way into social virtual reality interactions.
Franklin says Spaces users are in control of who enters their world, adding that invited friends can be removed with the click of a button.
Another protective feature ensures that if an avatar gets too close to you they fade out.
“We didn’t want people to get freaked out or scared, say if someone starts waving their hands in front of your face,” she says, adding that the feature can be turned off “if say I want to give my husband’s avatar a peck on the cheek.”
Franklin joined Facebook last fall after five years at Electronic Arts, where she worked on popular online life simulation game The Sims. Her background at EA has played a role in deciding how realistic to make the Facebook Spaces avatars. The short answer: Not very.
“On the one hand, your avatar has to be expressive and emotive and reflect your personality, and we have worked to include that,” she says. “On the other, if you go too far people can react badly. A big part of this all is us learning what people like.”
Franklin says she and her team will be monitoring what Spaces tools are engaged with most by users in order to refine the platform over the coming months.
One possible use case for Facebook’s new social VR platform might not be social at all. Franklin mentions that after Sims gamers sent their avatars to a virtual spa for massages and yoga, the human players reporting feeling more relaxed.
“Maybe you can disappear into a Spaces virtual bubble bath or surround yourself with puppies,” she jokes.
Actually, if you ever find yourself in Spaces with Franklin, beware. Her current penchant for baby hippo photos and videos are likely to flood your shared virtual world.
“Sorry,” she says with a laugh.