Facebook Spaces: what it is now and what it could be

This week at Facebook’s F8 conference I had a chance to try out Facebook Spaces, their new virtual meeting place for groups. As a non-gamer and someone who has only tried VR in passive, sit-back-and-enjoy-the-show applications, I was curious to see what a “VR for everyone” product looked and felt like.

My avatar taking a selfie in a virtual bazaar in Facebook Spaces.

At F8, Facebook set up a two-station approach to trying out Spaces. The first one was one to set up a Spaces avatar and link it to my Facebook account. This was done via an Oculus Rift headset and Touch controllers. The setup was about as clunky as any other avatar setup with menus of everything from eye and hair color to hair style and glasses shape. Facebook did add a nice shortcut by asking me which of my Facebook photos of myself I’d like to use as a base, so that right off the bat my avatar started with brown hair, glasses, and more or less my skin tone. On to station two, the actual “space.”

Three participants trying out Spaces at F8.

For demo purposes, Facebook put together stations with two guests and a Facebook “host” to walk us through the features. Again we donned the Rift headgear and Touch controllers and once in the VR space, our host walked us through some places she had 360 VR videos of, which were stunning, and we were able to take selfies, scribble in the air, and talk to each other. It was fun and in some ways I can see it becoming some sort of place to meet.

That said, Spaces doesn’t compare favorably to its main “bringing people together” competitor, the video call. Video brings an instant immediacy and intimacy to communication that Spaces doesn’t match, not that it tries to. It’s also much easier to access. Spaces is supposed to be fun, a place for friends. Yet it’s exactly this coolness factor that has the danger of becoming boring and mundane after a few sessions.

Can it catch on? Video calls a decade ago required users to add a camera, microphone and speakers to their desktop and even many laptops did not have them built in. Today they are on our phones, part of almost every messaging app, so that a high quality video call is relatively accessible with a mid-market phone and good connectivity. That said, the total cost video call hardware was never as expensive as an Oculus Rift at close to $600. Spaces also has the disadvantage of being a more expensive platform and, hence, will be more exclusive, with less users able to participate. The question is will our fascination with VR hold on until the tech becomes cheaper and more intuitive to use.

Finally, I see a different potential application for Spaces: education. The VR immersion in different worldwide locations was beautiful. Imagine that in an application  with a teacher/guide taking students around the world, in space, inside the human body, to places they have never been. Then imagine that for people without mobility, going places that they couldn’t travel to in life. That’s where Spaces has the opportunity to do something amazing and become more than a cool game.

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