Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hosted a live video of him and Rachel Rubin, the head of social virtual reality at Facebook, showing off how to use Facebook Spaces, the company’s virtual reality platform.
It’s not really clear the point of this platform, except that it’s sort of like Google Hangouts, Skype, or any other video-chat program, except that instead of seeing who you’re talking to, you see their cartoon avatar. You can change the background of the world you’re chatting in (which the company calls “teleporting” to somewhere else), and to show off this functionality, Zuckerberg and Rubin headed to Puerto Rico, which is still reeling from the effects of hurricane Maria. Three weeks after it hit, roughly 85% of the island remains without power, and 40% of the population without drinkable water.
From inside Facebook’s Frank Gehry-designed headquarters in Menlo Park, California, the two decided to “check out this interesting 360 video,” as Zuckerberg described it, of the devastation in Puerto Rico. Zuckerberg then awkwardly narrates his way through the video, commenting that “one of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place.”
But he wasn’t.
He was watching a grainy video while strapped to VR headset of people struggling to rebuilding an utterly demolished US territory. The overwhelming majority of people in Puerto Rico, if they even had a VR headset, would not have been able to watch Zuckerberg’s virtual tour, given that next to no one has access to the internet right now. “It really feels like we’re in Puerto Rico, and it’s obviously a tough place to get to right now,” Zuckerberg added.
While the video was presumably intended to raise awareness for the damage in Puerto Rico (as well as tease that Facebook will be having its fourth-annual developer conference for VR on Wednesday, Oculus Connect), it came off as a tone-deaf exercise. The smile on Zuckerberg’s cartoon avatar as he spoke of the devastation and the work his company has done to help Puerto Ricans check in with loved ones, and to aid in reconnecting the US territory, completely undercut the gravity of the situation.
The internet was quick to criticize the PR stunt, as well as defend what Facebook has done for the region—the company has donated $1.5 million to relief funds on top of its connectivity efforts. Facebook wasn’t immediately available to discuss why it chose touring Puerto Rico as the way to highlight Facebook Spaces—a tool that mainly seems to be just another way to connect with friends—or what exactly the company has done to help reconnect the island to the internet.
After touring Puerto Rico’s destruction, Zuckerberg and Rubin decided it would be fun to jump to the Moon, and brought along Zuckerberg’s dog, Beast.
Update: Zuckerberg seems to have realized that his VR livestream might have been perceived as offensive by some people in the comments section below the video: