Facebook wants you to hang out with your friends more. Virtually speaking, that is.
You see, when Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for some $2 billion in change in 2014, it all seemed a bit strange. What is Facebook going to do with a virtual reality company? Evidently they did have some plans for it. Those plans were unveiled yesterday at day one of the the F8 conference when Facebook launched the beta version of their VR app, Facebook Spaces.
The premise is simple: Make virtual reality social.
Through the Oculus Rift headset, users can launch the Spaces app and connect the Facebook universe they’ve crafted through the years to a virtual space. Within that space, you exist as an avatar that can feign surprise, laugh, frown, and express confusion. You know, sort of like a real person.
The cartoon-ish avatars are created based on actual photos of yourself, with the ability to tweak them get it how you want. Social VR Product Manager Mike Booth said that your close friends should be able to recognize you, though ultimately how you look will be up to you. At the moment, no doubt the avatars are a bit on the goofy side and I imagine there’s a bit of a learning curve, but everything new has to start somewhere.
Currently, they are a poor representation of ourselves—kind of Facebook’s own version of Nintendo Miis. But hey, maybe that even takes some of the pressure off. No need to put on makeup or brush your hair, right? But if it’s realism that we’re after, with 3D scanners getting increasingly better, capturing a more accurate virtual avatar is more than possible.
But most importantly, the idea here is to spend time with your friends. No matter how many miles apart you are, these virtual space can bring you together in a way that a simple Facebook post—or even phone call—could ever really do. Through an interactive virtual environment, you can watch a movie, teleport to the bottom of an ocean, play chess, sword fight, share photos, draw 3D objects, answer a video call, take a selfie—and even invite guests into your home through a 360-degree video experience. You can do anything, with friends.
How much of the physical world, do we really need? Do we need a physical TV, or can we watch a virtual one? Do you really need to hang that painting on the wall, or can you just gaze upon it in your own virtual gallery? We want to interact with real environments, we just don’t always want to get out of our PJs to do so. (Those of us with disabilities, literally can’t).
In many ways, what virtual reality can become is a teleportation device that lets you jump to places and experience them first-hand without leaving your home—whether that means a front row seat at a concert, a tour of Paris, or a walk through a war zone. The possibilities seem limitless.
As of now, you can already do a lot of that through the various VR experiences available. These will only continue to get more immersive and high-quality over the years. But Zuckerberg sees this as a social experience. A chance to hang out with real friends in a virtual space, to bring them into yours and to go to different spaces together. It sounds crazy, borderline cheesy, but when you watch Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s live demo, there really is something rather magical about it.
So, will we all be living in a Matrix universe soon enough? It’s hard to tell. There’s no doubt that the potential for augmented reality is tremendous, but we need to consider the form factor. As long as we need to put a headset on—especially as clunky and uncomfortable as VR headsets are these days, there will be resistance. Google tried to introduce glasses, and they famously failed, largely because of pushback from the public.
If this technology is to catch on, the transition between the real world and the virtual needs to be far more seamless. Discreet glasses that look no different than those a person with the misfortune of having poor vision has to wear are a step in the right direction. Contacts Who knows? Facebook intends to support all sorts of VR platforms, not just the Oculus Rift. That means more accessible platforms like Google’s Daydream could really get this technology out into the public without much expense at all.
What Facebook gets right is this: If enough of your friends will want to “hang out” online, so will you. Virtually, or otherwise. All this might start to creep you out and sound like an episode of Black Mirror, but one thing’s for sure: the future is coming, whether we’re ready for it or not.