Over the last year or so, I’ve done a lot of things in virtual reality. I’ve climbed mountains, shaped cities by hand, and slung spaceships around in zero-G dogfights. But until last week, there was still one thing I hadn’t really done: talk to someone.
Last October, at the Oculus Connect conference, Facebook announced a new product: “Facebook Spaces.” Think of it as Facebook’s Messenger, expanded out to VR. Before you get started, you put together a cartoon avatar of yourself (you can use Facebook photos to automatically generate something, or go nuts in a custom-avatar-creation screen). It’s like creating a Nintendo Mii character — you’re aiming for a rough approximation, rather than a one-to-one match of your face. After that, you use an Oculus Rift headset and two Oculus Touch controllers, and you and a Facebook friend hang out around a virtual table, shooting the breeze.
Spaces has been in public beta since the F8 conference in mid-April, but because I don’t have many friends who have both Oculus VR headsets and Facebook accounts, I didn’t try it out until last week, when Facebook invited me to one of its offices in Manhattan. For 20 minutes, I chatted with an affable Facebook employee in virtual reality, fully prepared to find the experience a let down. Instead, I found myself curious about what my social life might be like if the VR gear needed for Facebook Spaces was more widely distributed.
First things first: Spaces isn’t perfect. It’s easy to ding it for what it’s not. It’s not cheap: Even with Oculus dropping the price on its headset and controller, you’ll easily spend more than a $1,000 getting everything set up if you’re starting from scratch with no PC.
It’s also not even close to widely used right now. There’s no firm number of how many people have an Oculus Rift and Touch controllers at home, but unless you travel in circles where a lot of people are very into PC gaming, you may not have any Facebook friends to talk to. (Facebook says it plans to roll Spaces out to more VR headsets in the future, but there’s no firm timeline of when that’ll happen.)
And it isn’t a free-form, expansive experience right now. It’s you and other people chatting at a table, with a few things to mess around with while you chat. You have a marker to draw 3-D sculptures that then attach to your friend’s head — a way to change the environment surrounding you, and the ability to take a selfie and even receive a video call from a real-world friend in virtual reality. It’s fun stuff, but Spaces is deliberately designed to be a chat app with some stuff in the edges, rather than a game where you can talk to your friends.
But as a rough idea of what social interaction might look like in virtual reality, it’s extremely compelling. Spaces gets one key thing right: It feels like talking to someone in real life. The cartoon avatars, which seemed goofy in the Facebook demo videos, are big and bright in VR, but animated with a surprising amount of subtlety, including mouth movement when talking. The headset and two handheld controllers mean that a fair amount of body language carries through — a tilt of the head or the slight rise and fall of a hand while talking convey meaning in a way that pure audio can’t. And there’s some smart software tricks as well — a cartoon avatar’s eyes will meet your gaze when they’re looking at you, but then follow something they’re holding and looking away. What could have easily felt like talking to a dead-eyed puppet in stereoscopic vision instead felt natural and familiar, even if I was making small talk while floating in outer space.
Facebook was quick to say these were early days, and that Facebook Spaces is more an experiment in progress than a product building toward a final release. Until full-featured VR headsets become untangled from desktop PCs (or mobile phones improve to the point that they can power a compelling VR experience), it’s tough to imagine the tech becoming anything close to commonplace. And it’ll need to be commonplace for something like Spaces to really take off, in the way webcams and then smartphones made video chat an ordinary part of many people’s lives.
Still, spending 20 minutes chatting with a Facebook employee I’d met 2 minutes earlier is the most interesting thing I’ve done in VR this year, and it was engaging in a way that shooting zombies or exploring ancient ruins in VR isn’t. Virtual reality is still very much in its infancy, but at least it’s learning to talk.