Facebook is the king of social media, but that doesn’t mean we’ll want to use it in VR

Spacing out.
Spacing out.
Image: Facebook
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Last night, I got to try out the latest version of Facebook Spaces. It’s the VR social network that the company is still developing, but released to anyone that has an Oculus Rift VR headset in April.

Much like Bitmoji, Second Life, the Nintendo Wii, and many other platforms based around sending a digital version of ourselves out to the web, Facebook Spaces starts with you building your avatar. I logged into my Facebook account, and started making a virtual representation of myself. Since I was in a public demo space and didn’t want to spend too long making myself look perfect, I just started messing around with what I could do and left myself in a very plain, Zuckerberg-like t-shirt. (Your avatars have no legs so I didn’t have to worry about pants.)

You’re greeted with a circular table that looks like it belongs on the bridge of a Star Trek spaceship. This is where you and the friends you meet in Spaces convene. There’s also a set of shelves that float in front of your face (which you can make disappear when you’re done with them) that include objects like a mirror, a selfie stick, and a smartphone that you can use to broadcast from VR to Facebook Live.

I did that while I was waiting for my colleague to show up in the space, as an Oculus representative tried to explain to me how to actually do anything. The results were likely quite confusing for my Facebook friends:

I couldn’t figure out how—if there was even a way to do it—to write a message along with my live broadcast, so this was just a shot out into the ether of Facebook, entirely contextless. Another coworker saw this and asked if I was OK.

Eventually my colleague, Hanna Kozlowska, showed up from her account, and we hung out with the Oculus representative who was running our demonstration (whom we are now friends with on Facebook, because there’s no other way to easily hang out with someone in Spaces).

She showed us how to use the pen from the floating shelves to draw in our world and move the text around, and how to change the backdrop to any piece of 360-degree footage available on Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Rubin, recently thought it was a good idea to use Spaces to “tour” disaster-stricken Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria had hit. “One of the things that’s really magical about virtual reality is you can get the feeling that you’re really in a place,” Zuckerberg said at the time, while sitting thousands of miles from Puerto Rico’s destruction.

Things got a little out of hand when I changed the background to a downhill skiing race, giving us all mild vertigo for a second, and then to some American football game, while we continued to draw on the walls and generally mess around like kids in a candy store.

I accidentally started another Facebook Live video, which rather annoyed our handler, who was calmly trying to walk us through the scripted demonstration of everything you could do with Spaces.

In short, it was a fun, surreal experience that seemed a little unfinished. It was occasionally difficult to press buttons and grab items in Spaces, and there wasn’t really that much to do with anyone, apart from take selfies and draw on the walls.

Zuckerberg’s goal is to connect 1 billion people through VR in the near future, which is partly why he purchased Oculus for about $2 billion in 2014. This is the company’s first real VR effort that isn’t strictly about gaming or watching content in VR. It’s closer to the science-fiction fantasy we’ve been presented with for decades, where digital representations of ourselves can interact with others across the world, like we saw in The MatrixReady Player One (which Facebook made all Oculus employees read), Tron, and countless other stories.

But even when you’re using it to hang out with others, virtual reality is still an isolating experience. You have to actively choose to enter a room, turn on a computer, and don a headset to use it. It’s not like making a video call or sending someone a Snapchat from your phone. It takes time and requires you to stop whatever you’re doing. It’s also still an expensive endeavor: Oculus Rift headsets (with the handheld controllers and two sensors) cost $400, and the computer you need to power them are around $1,000.

Facebook works as a social network because it’s where a large number of our friends have a presence, and because it very easily stores, indexes, and resurfaces our memories at key moments. Right now, Facebook Spaces is more like a teleconferencing service with cartoons, and not much else. Its entire purpose seems to be to forge deeper individual connections with specific friends through having fun (which sounds like the modus operandi of another social network Facebook once tried to buy), rather than “build community” as Zuckerberg has harped upon this year.

Perhaps Facebook gets there with VR, and perhaps VR will one day be so prevalent in society that Spaces just becomes the default way we interact on Facebook. But, for now, it’s just a strange way to confuse your friends and draw on top of others.