Facebook and Communication in Virtual Reality

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Facebook and Oculus Rift announced the launch of the beta version of Spaces, an application through which users of social networks can communicate in virtual reality. “A Digital Frame” figured out how it works and why Mark Zuckerberg is interested in VR.

How Spaces application works

Today Spaces application is adapted only for work with virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. By the way, Mark Zuckerberg acquired Oculus in 2014, but why he needs it and how Facebook will use VR-technology became clear only now.

On the first visit to Spaces, the virtual assistant offers to select one of user’s photos, on the basis of which avatar will be created – a cartoon picture that will become a reflection of the user in VR. The avatar can be easily customized – for example, you can change the color of hair or eyes or pick new clothes. The creators paid special attention to avatars of users and how they convey human emotions,  – they should be realistic enough, but shouldn’t look strange or frightening.

The basis of Spaces is interaction with contacts from Facebook’s friendlist. For example, with users who also have Spaces, you can visit one of the many locations: go for a walk to the Eiffel Tower, dive to the bottom of the ocean or visit the desert. The place is chosen by the users themselves, the main thing is that images of the selected location are available in a 360-degree panoramic image format or video. Now in Spaces simultaneously can talk 4 people.

Users can also draw simple sketches and move them around virtual space: you can draw a funny cap or glasses and put them on the cartoon avatar of a friend. With help of Oculus Rift controllers, which are attached to user’s thumbs, one can make his cartoon avatar express different emotions. So, if you lift the controllers up, the avatar will laugh, if you stretch forward, he will smile, and if you bring both controllers to your head, he will make a surprised expression. In the application there is also a built-in virtual selfie-stick – users can take pictures in VR-space, and then, for example, post the resulting image in their facebook.

There are no special activities in Spaces, at least not yet. The emphasis is on interaction between users.

What makes Spaces different from other VR applications

Most existing VR-applications are made for individual use and do not assume interaction with other people in the virtual space. However, there are various chat applications, for example Altspace. But in order to communicate in one of them with a friend, you must arrange it in advance and simultaneously connect to the chat. In other cases, users of VR chats are forced to communicate with strangers, which is far from comfortable – it is not known who can hide behind the cute drawing avatar with which you are conversing in virtual reality. Unlike these applications, Facebook relies on the interaction of people already familiar with each other, between whom relationships are established. Head of VR-department of Facebook Rachel Franklin says that the main goal of Spaces is to simplify communication between people and strengthen existing links between them through obtaining a common memorable experience of communication in virtual reality. So far in Spaces you can only communicate with friends from Facebook. In the future, according to Franklin, the function of communicating with strangers will probably be added, but so far this is not the case.

Another important feature of Spaces, distinguishing it from other VR-applications, is the ability of users to communicate with those who are not connected to virtual reality. For example, through a Facebook messenger video call , integrated in Spaces, you can call your friends. The user connected to Spaces will see usual for video-call image of the interlocutor. And those who don’t have a virtual reality headset, on screen of the device will see a friend’s cartoon avatar, immersed in the VR-environment. For example, a toon can call from the top of Everest or from the White House. The choice of location remains at the discretion of the user. Thus Spaces erases the existing boundary between virtual and familiar reality.

What are the difficulties Spaces can face?

At the moment, only a very small number of users have virtual reality headsets, so you can not expect Spaces to become instantly popular. Moreover, so far the application works only with Oculus Rift. Facebook is going to add support for other VR devices over time, but no one has voiced any specific plans and deadlines. That is, so far, to try out a new format for communicating with your friend, you need at least two sets of Oculus Rift plus a pair of powerful computers (VR-headset is very demanding on the hardware).

Another possible problem with Spaces is a very limited number of functions. Now users can only communicate with each other and move around the locations shot in 360 ° format. Due to the fact that 360-degree cameras are also not very common, panoramic images and video of suitable quality are sparse and the choice of locations is relatively small.

The success of Spaces will largely depend on how quickly VR-devices and 360-degree cameras will gain popularity, as well as whether third-party developers will want to create their own applications, games and resources specifically for integration into Spaces. At least Facebook plans to provide them with this opportunity. Whether Spaces will be able to change the world and transfer human communication to virtual reality will become clear in a few years.


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