I'm live streaming a military parade. In Red Square. In Moscow, Russia. In virtual reality. And by me I mean my real voice coming out of my cartoony avatar's mouth, next to an avatar of Leonie, a real Facebook employee who's in another real room. Everyone's confused about what's going on, from the "INTENSE!" comment left by a friend on the video to the "What the fuck was that on Facebook earlier?" I hear as I walk through the door of my flat later.
Facebook Spaces allows up to four Oculus Rift-wearing Facebook friends to create and customise avatars, based on profile pics. You can hang out in a 360-degree environment, chat via voice, take virtual selfies, draw 3D objects and interact with each other via waving, pointing and facial expressions – all done using the handheld Touch controllers.
One of the most popular features has also been making Messenger video calls to non-VR users. I made a call to my colleagues James and Conor, during which James shouted that I had giant avatar hands – true, they are oversized – then I took a selfie with them onscreen. If that sounds nuts, don't worry, the confusion won't last for long.
Spaces' new live broadcasting feature has arrived for its beta VR social app – the controllers are required but the bundle price has come down to $499 this summer ($399 if you grab a bundle now). It lets your friends on the social network see everything you're doing within the VR space in 2D (it's not a Facebook 360 video to move around) and it gets better. I didn't get a chance to try it out in my short demo but the person in VR can reach out, using the Touch controllers, and grab 3D versions of comments left by Facebook friends within the VR app.
Me and Leonie from Facebook having a right laugh. On a tank.
"Right now your Facebook friends can post comments and reactions on a live VR stream but you've got to think – OK, if I can post a comment and turn it into a 3D object, what other kinds of cool things can we do to bridge this 2D to VR world?" says Rachel Franklin, Facebook's head of social VR. "When we're talking about the premise of it, it's how do I facilitate a relationship, how do I plus one on your relationship bar with somebody in a virtual setting," she continues, with a nod to her previous job heading up The Sims 3 and 4 as a VP at EA.
She sees Spaces as a way to bring in people who might be anxious that VR isn't for them – one of the reasons the team abandoned open virtual environments where users could move around but would "literally get lost in the woods and not pay attention to each other". In Spaces you are a floating top half, and it certainly takes a moment to adjust to nobody having floating legs. More importantly, it's bold, it's bright, it's beginner friendly and it uses Facebook as its starting point. At one point Leonie draws me a crown and pops it on my head – this is far from some inaccessible sci-fi FPS.
"I think that there's still this belief widely that VR is a niche technology for a certain subset of people," she tells us. "And so the impetus behind trying to get non VR communication actually has more to do with changing the mindset and having people think – oh, that's for me, that's something that I can see myself doing or that looks like a joyful, fun experience. And so it's more to offer up a different tone than you would normally expect coming from VR out into the world."
Facebook's decision to only allow communication with friends in your network for this initial rollout, as opposed to jumping into virtual rooms with strangers as you could in the Oculus Social app, comes with some built-in advantages, one of which is reducing the risk for harassment within VR.
Rachel Franklin is head of social VR at Facebook
"It's why we started with this core of – it's people you're already friends with," says Franklin. "That was very purposeful really to start from a safe place. We still have some safety mechanisms but it's less about purposeful harassment and more about, if you're flailing around, grabbing something and my hand goes in your face, you have a visceral reaction to it. So we have a safety bubble so I can't do that by accident and it also has the dual purpose of – if I'm just being a jerk and stick my hands in your face, I can't do that."
It's not just the physical movements, either, there's also the fact that your companions in Facebook Spaces can control the entire environment around you without you noticing if you're busy drawing a crown. Franklin highlights the fact that when you turn your wrist, wearing the Touch controller, you get a pause button for a swift exit: "It's a super fast way of saying 'I need a breath for a second'. Maybe somebody put on a rollercoaster video and it's making me feel sick. It doesn't have to be malicious necessarily."
As for what's coming up in future, extending Spaces to Facebook Groups – in which users might not be friends with everyone invited to the VR space – looks to be high up the list. "If we expand to Groups, which of course we would want to do because it makes sense, we have to do these things very thoughtfully… If we allow for a broader set of relationships then that's awesome and there's incredible use cases for it. But it comes with a level of responsibility and thoughtfulness that goes along with that."
So why would you use Spaces instead of, say, a Skype video call? Facebook is hoping the extra presence that its 6DoF tracking allows – moving your head, mimicking your gaze as you look at virtual objects, using your hands to express yourself without getting "creepy" – is enough to make existing and potential Rift owners consider it.
"We had one gentleman who posted his experience with Messenger video call," says Franklin. "He lives in France but in a different city from his mom and he regularly uses it to call her. They find that it's really an effective way for her to feel that he's there because of the expressiveness of him moving around, even though he's an avatar."
During our chat, I ask the obvious 'more' questions. Will it be cross platform? Yes, but no announcements yet. What's coming up? More avatar features – you can change skin colour, hair type, eyebrow shape and even pick a hijab, but I notice that all avatars (male and female) seem to be flat chested and skinny.
One obvious sticking point is that Facebook/Oculus has a partnership with a beginner-friendly headset in the form of the Samsung Gear VR, but mobile VR headsets don't have the tracking that would allow this kind of interaction (yet). Plus in Hugh's recent chat with Oculus' Nate Mitchell and Jason Rubin, they indicated that standalone VR won't catch up to Rift for at least two years. "Mobile is a whole other ball game," Franklin says, echoing this sentiment. "Right now we're focused on six degrees of freedom, heads and hands. But the idea [is] that we want people to communicate as broadly as possible so this will come out on other platforms."
I found my 20 minute demo of Spaces to be pretty frenetic, as the Facebook folks were trying to cram in as many features and fun things as they could. So much so that, at one point, I had to do a bit of tidying up and remove the virtual phone I'd just called James on so I could pick out a selfie from the stack in front of me to upload to Facebook. It got hectic, especially as I kept letting go of the right hand trigger and dropping virtual marker pens and selfie sticks – maybe a mechanism for deleting objects you're ignoring after a while could work.
I can see the potential though. If I was sitting down, not standing, I would probably feel better about having no avatar legs. And if I wasn't getting instructions in my ear about how to save my terrible octopus drawings, I probably would have spent more time just chatting to and goofing around with Leonie. Especially if I hadn't just met her five minutes earlier. I Skype my sister, who lives in another city, every Sunday but it's not the same as hanging out, watching videos, pulling silly faces and sharing stuff like we do in person. If the price came down enough to make it practical for two headsets, I could see us trying this out.
Aside from features like doodling, which feel slightly gimmicky when you've tried the real deal Tilt Brush, I'm also excited to try out more of the sharing and exploring 360 and 2D videos with friends, Expedition-style perhaps, and making video calls outside of VR. Not to mention whatever features Facebook adds as it moves Spaces out of beta.
"My profile picture is one of my favourite, goofiest moments because I had a virtual object in my hand and I'm cross-eyed looking at it, it's kind of silly," says Franklin. "But it's things like that which keep you in the story, in the environment. Emotion, expressiveness, the ability to make a surprise face or a super smiley face." So at the very least, early adopters will be rewarded with some funny profile pics.
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