If there’s one company that should be able to make socialising in virtual reality (VR) work its Facebook. It’s kind of its forte, and since acquiring Oculus back in 2014 you’d have thought a VR app would have been on the cards early on. Well a year after Oculus Rift’s launch it finally appeared last week in the form of Facebook Spaces, with the company rolling out the beta to great fanfare during F8. So over the course of the past few days I’ve been immersing myself to see if Spaces offers a paradigm shift in the way we use VR.
Firstly social VR isn’t exactly new. While the technology has been criticised as solitary, apps such as AltspaceVR and vTime have sought to prove this isn’t the case. I won’t be comparing Facebook Spaces to these other experiences here just because it’s in beta, that will come at a later stage.
First and foremost this is essentially Facebook in VR if you hadn’t guessed already or even tried it out. You log into the app with your Facebook account and you’ll be greeted with a bunch of your profile images. Selecting one of these brings up an AI designed avatar of you, which can then be further altered. I’ve put up quite a few profile images over the years but for some reason my selection was limited to just a couple of images. Nevertheless I was given an assortment of noses, lips, hairstyles and more to select from to fully customise myself.
Well that would be the case if there wasn’t some glaring omissions. The main one for me was body shape. I’m not a small bloke, I’m stocky and do have a few extra pounds on me. None of which I could input into the app, there’s a stock body and that’s that. If you’re happy with Facebook’s idea of an androgynous world where we’re all a perfect BMI then fine, but that does nullify a major factor in individuality. As this is a beta additional options like this may come in time, but how hard is it for a company of this magnitude to include a slider bar that adds a few more curves.
Once I was kind of happy with my look it was time to really start experimenting with engaging with the outside world whilst inside my new virtual one. One of the features announced that really did interest me was that of Facebook Messenger compatibility, talking or video calling mates who didn’t have VR. This sounded great but turned out to be mostly a mess. So I opened my friends list to call a buddy and I’m greeted with a couple of rows of my Facebook Friends, there’s just one glaring problem, no search! Yes that’s right, no search functionality whatsoever, just a couple of up/down arrows to flip through page after page. If your friends list is small – I try to keep mine manageable – then it isn’t too bad, head into the high hundreds or even thousands and you might as well forget that feature.
Choosing someone from the first selection the connection went through fine, until we started to speak. This was a glitchy, stuttering, barely legible conversation – with haphazard video – that felt more like a novelty addition than something you could use for proper communication. This was on the first day of release, so I thought ‘ok maybe it’s just struggling with everyone jumping on at once’. Nope, going back to it several times in the following days gave the same results, and what shocked me more, this was the same case for multiple people in VR. Joining up with VRFocus’ editor Kevin Joyce, both of us in VR with our expertly crafted avatars and the sound was still cutting in and out, you could still have a conversation, it was just somewhat piecemeal.
‘But there are good things about Facebook Spaces right?’ you may ask. Well I could easily access plenty of 360-degree video and photos from the company’s massive library, swapping between groups I followed or suggestions. And these look great when brought into the centre of the table to become a new background. Once again though, even the most basic functionality was missing, there’s no ability to search for anything, just page after page to flick through hoping to find something of interest.
So is Facebook Spaces the awesome, interactive, social hub for VR that Facebook is touting it to be, well no, not really. That may sound a bit harsh considering its a beta but this isn’t some indie developer trying to get feedback on Steam. This is a multi-billion dollar company that can throw cash around however it likes. To release the app in this current form seems rushed and highly premature, it works, kind of, but not in a usable everyday way. You’ll use it for five or ten minutes until the novelty wears off, or the constant sound glitches make you want to start punching an avatar with the selfie stick, then its back to Oculus Home to find something worth your attention.