Is your avatar ready for its closeup? Three years after Facebook’s $3 billion acquisition of Oculus, and a year after the launch of the Oculus Rift, the public is finally getting its hands on a marriage of high-end virtual reality, real-world streaming video, and Facebook’s social graph.
A year after offering the first glimpse of its social VR work, Facebook is rolling out a beta app for the Rift that’s a manifestation of that union. Called Facebook Spaces, the free app—available through the Oculus Store—lets Rift users hang out together in a personalized and private virtual room, collaborate on 3D digital art, and interact with many forms of Facebook content–photos, videos, text, and so on.
What’s more impressive though, is the ability for Spaces users to conduct live video chats with people in the real world via Facebook’s massively popular Messenger. It may sound like an odd idea, and it’s not clear how compelling the experience will end up being, but it’s actually quite simple: Messenger users would see a live stream of the virtual world of the Rift user’s private space, while the Rift wearer would see live video from the Messenger user’s phone.
Last October, Facebook showed off the ability to live-video chat between VR and Messenger during the third annual Oculus Connect developers conference. But that was a demo on stage starring CEO Mark Zuckerberg and engineer Mike Booth. Now, the company is taking the wraps off the project and letting the public try it out for the first time.
The upshot of this is that while there have been only a few hundred thousand Rifts sold, 1.2 billion monthly Messenger users will now be able to take part directly in mixed-reality communications involving personal friends or family members, something that Facebook is clearly hoping will motivate more people to try out virtual reality. It’s still in the early stages, and Zuckerberg has asked people to be patient with the growth of the VR ecosystem, but the company has its eyes on gradually giving users more and more reasons to take the leap.
“We’re not looking at this like a huge revenue generator,” Booth says. “This is about how we connect people and make the experience really awesome, assuming this hardware is ubiquitous in, let’s say five years.”
For now, Booth and his team will be taking feedback from Spaces beta users, as well as from those who participate on the Messenger side of the equation, and integrating it as Facebook Social VR slowly gets more and more sophisticated. There’s “a million things we want to add,” he says.
One of the Spaces personalization features that Booth’s team is most excited about is the way it offers users the ability to create an avatar that best matches their personality. To begin with, it selects six photos of the user from their Facebook profile. You choose the one you like best and the system then provides five custom avatars based on that photo. It’s also possible to change any number of specific features, such as hairstyle or hair color.
Once the avatar is complete, users can bring friends–assuming they have Rifts–into their space, where they can together look at things like videos or photos, much like friends would do on their couch at home, Booth explains.
They can also use a marker tool to create 3D objects, which they can then manipulate and trade back and forth between users in Spaces. For example, if a user created a 3D chessboard, he or she could also make pieces and two people could play a game of VR chess together.
Booth argued that the marker tool is great for drawing prototypes or offering compelling descriptions and explanations—or you could draw your friend a tie and attach it to their outfit.
You could also pull out a VR selfie stick and shoot photos or videos that can then be shared on Facebook, much as you would share any normal content.
There are numerous social VR experiences that have already launched. Among them is AltspaceVR. But none of them allow users to directly integrate their Facebook social graph. And that, of course, is what everyone has been waiting for ever since Zuckerberg bought Oculus.
For now, the promise of Spaces is probably more exciting than the actual experience. But there’s no doubt that many people are going to get a kick out of video-chatting between the real world and the virtual world.
As a company whose mission is to connect the world and allow people to share whatever they want, Facebook is clearly eager to rev up the VR ecosystem. It’s going to be slow going, but for the company to get its social VR system up and running for users is a big step. Here’s looking forward to what’s next.