Facebook Figured it Out: VR’s Real Killer App is Friends

by Jamie Feltham • April 18th, 2017

I’m standing on a beach at sunset, drawing a sword much in the same way I would with Google’s Tilt Brush. To the side of me, David Jagneaux is writing his name in the air, talking to Ian Hamilton, who is phoning in from outside of VR with the Facebook Messenger app. Meanwhile, I’m talking to my girlfriend, who’s in the same room as me but also looking into VR through her smartphone screen. I take a selfie of the scene with one hand as I draw a blue mustache on my face with the other.

It’s all a little crazy, and wildly exciting.

Facebook Spaces is the official name of the social networking giant’s first full social VR app, which launched today as a free (and very early) beta for the Oculus Rift. If you have a Rift, Touch, and a Facebook account, all you need to do is head to the Oculus Store and download it. After those few simple steps, hey presto, you’re looking at the future of mixed reality.

Though Facebook’s Oculus has its own suite of social features including avatar creation and friend finding, Spaces does all of that from scratch with a specific purpose in mind; connect people from across the world, give them the feeling that they’re really meeting up together like in real life, and then do things that they could never do within the confines of real reality. As an early app, it shows huge potential of reaching that vision in the months and years to come. In fact, it already has an impressive amount of features too, even if the inevitable bugs hold you back from fully utilizing them.

Spaces started me off in a peaceful campfire scene where I could make my avatar. You can lay the foundations of your appearance by selecting photos from your Facebook account to start you off, and then fine tune with a wide array of assets. I quickly created a rough approximation of myself with the aid of a virtual mirror that displayed my virtual, cartoonish doppelganger. I was talking to someone in my real room as I customized my look, and noticed surprisingly accurate lip syncing as I chatted away.

Surrounding me as I closed the appearances tabs were various items that have been created with Spaces’ pencil tool, which lays on a virtual table in front of me. I can either pick them up or start drawing with the same ease and intuition you’ll see in Tilt Brush, or open a library of pre-created objects like swords and flags. I’m still playing around with these tools as I use my free hand to open up my Friends list from a console on the table.

FB VR Face Change

Ironically, I’m fortunate enough to have a relatively small Facebook friends list, so navigating through to find David was almost instantaneous, but he had a much larger list and struggled to locate both myself and Ian on his end. When I invite David to join me, he has to open the friends tab, find me, and then request to join me.

When he appears around my campfire, I’m overjoyed. Me and David have hung out in VR many times, be it in space ships or other social networks, but I’m excited to push the boundaries of Spaces as he pops into view. Unfortunately there’s little to be pushed, as either one of us would find the other’s avatar to have totally frozen across multiple attempts to join up together. When David calls Ian, I can’t see or hear his video feed, and the same goes for him with my call. It’s a simple bug that I’m sure will get working very soon, and I still had voice chat to share laughter over as I scribbled over David’s face too.

Even with these issues, Facebook Spaces started to make a social network footprint in seconds. People are already sharing screencaps of my time talking to them in VR on Twitter feeds.

As slight as it may sound, navigating around Spaces was my favorite part of the experience so far. With a surprising breadth of options, I’d assumed it would take me days to get used to the interface, but I was flying through it with ease in minutes. Friends, Tools, Objects, Media and more were all on the console in front of me. Sharing an image was as simple as scrolling through my Media feed, grabbing a photo like a postcard, and then tossing it into the middle of the table. Touching my wrist would bring up options menu where I could sign out, and surrender my headset to my girlfriend, who immediately tried to call her family in VR (they’ll do it in an hour).

Of course, many of these features are available in long-established VR apps like Altspace, Rec Room, and BigScreen, and the teams behind those experiences have laid the groundwork connecting the relatively small VR installed base as it currently stands. Facebook, though, could connect the 1.2 billion people already using its Messenger app to anyone wearing a Rift as it works toward one day getting everyone inside its headsets.

And that’s really the major point here. Facebook Spaces is something I’m excited to start digging deeper into not just with my friends in VR but also my friends and family outside of VR. Every time I call my Dad (which I’ll be doing as soon as this post wraps up), I’m going to be showing him the future through a window in the palm of his hand. It’s early days but Facebook already seems to be getting a grasp on and taming the unwieldy possibilities of VR with friends and family. Dare we say it, Facebook might have created the killer app in the process.

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  • Darrell Markie

    yup I always shrugged my shoulders about this project until I called some friends on facebook..yup this is the future…science fiction

    • random_name

      But how can it be special? You’re just “communicating” with somebody through a window which is essentially the same as video conferencing.

      • Darrell Markie

        this is nothing like video conferencing..quick to judge as usual without trying the platform.

      • Darrell Markie

        This is nothing like basic video conferencing. It goes far beyond that with its early tool sets and how you interact with others. You are able to quickly pull up pictures and videos and resize them and place them around the room. I would suggest looking for demo locations before jumping to judgement. There definitely is a huge reason dedicated VR headsets are still being developed by several companies. It is an amazing tool, a new way interact and a great gaming platform. I have a hard time explaining VR experiences because words nor videos ever do them justice.

        • random_name

          You don’t need to explain experiences because I own a Vive. So I know what you mean. But really, this is just a social app. It’d be better if the person saw your real face instead of an avatar. Now, it’d be different if other people were using Oculus’s as well or another platform to be IN the experience, but a person who is just video chatting and seeing avatars, I’d think it’d be a subpar experience for them. To be fair, I’m not much of a social person and I haven’t tried this personally.

          • RandomLetters27

            Think how much people like cosmetic items for character avatars in MMOs or other games. Now think about how they could do that in VR and be whatever they want, wherever they want. Picture this in a couple years, not just now. And sure, the assumption is that several of the people involved will pop into VR together, not just flat-screening it, before long.

  • Justos

    This app is fucking amazing. Its blowing my friends minds! What a great addition to the VR library.

    To people who hate on needing facebook: IT IS FACEBOOK! Don’t download it and then complain you need a FB account!

  • Bibelo

    Will Facebook play the game of love and make it available to Vive? I doubt it.

    • braylien

      i think they said it will be coming to all 6dof headsets

  • polysix

    meh… this isn’t what VR is meant to be

    • polysix

      ..but it’ll sure work wonders for Facebook’s adverts, data gathering and people harvesting. Keep playing that game with them…

      Meanwhile over in ‘real VR’…

    • Bakkster

      Actually, this is exactly what Facebook bought Oculus for, right? And for that matter, part of Palmer Luckey’s

      Gamers were the ones who were most willing to spend money on it early, but the goal was always that Virtual Reality would be possible for everything VR has been used for in sci-fi for decades. Entertainment is part of it, but education and communication are big goals as well.

    • RandomLetters27

      Sure it is. When your wife has turned her Pintrest page into a virtual home, her avatar is a giant kitten with anime eyes, and you’re sitting on the virtual roof shooting zombies with your buddies while half-attentively guiding a drone-view of your lawnmower cutting your real grass, the future will have arrived!! 😉

  • Bundy

    One more step closer to the OASIS

  • jimrp

    They have alot of work to do.I try to send pics to FB by laying it in the center of table. Does not send. Video calls. I see them they see just black. Some objects can not pick up. Its cool idea just needs to work.

  • fuyou2

    No VIVE SUPPORT!!!! , another way to try sucking you into joining facebook.. What a piece of shit, just another boring sitdown gearvr centric app.

    • Mermado 1936

      They cannot spy you with a Vive… so whats the point?

    • Burstup

      Calm down and enjoy your Vive. (I use both the Rift and the Vive, and they’re both amazing, each having advantages and disadvantages.)

    • Darrell Markie

      Why because the early versions of the app in BETA are on the platform that they own……They want to make it as good as they can on their own platform first and its easier to devolop when you are creating content for one device. I would relax and patiently wait like I do when I can not use something on my Rift. Why not just use REvive and not worry about it.

  • Mermado 1936

    This is for what i dont want VR… Have a good time with Facebook spying everything you say or everthing you do.

  • mbze430

    I tried this last night… but since I don’t have any real life friends with Oculus Rift, I just tried it with a friend over Video chat. She only got a black screen. I can see her fine. Guess there are a lot of work to do.

  • Nicholas

    Yeah. OK. Or I could just meet up with my friends and family in real life. Or video chat. What’s the point of this again?

    • Burstup

      What’s the point of you posting here instead of meeting your friends and family?

      • Nicholas

        And the point of your post is…?

        • Darrell Markie

          You should try something before jumping on the I haven’t tried and don’t like it bandwagon. These experiences are incredible and I can see why Facebook invested so much money into Oculus.

    • Bakkster

      What if they live across the country, and video chat doesn’t make you feel very connected to them? I think there’s value to both, video chat is quick and easy, social VR is higher quality interaction.

      • Nicholas

        Sorry, but I’d rather see them than a crude digital representation of them. Higher quality interaction? Not in my book. Let’s see how it fares once the initial novelty wears off.

        • Bakkster

          I also think it’s worth looking at the potential, rather than just the current form. Today it’s cartoon avatars, what about ~10 years from now when it’s photorealistic?

    • RandomLetters27

      Because they don’t live in your house? And you don’t want to just video chat, you want to hang out at the beach, or on Mars. And your brother thinks he’s hilarious and always shows up as a giant chicken in VR.