Facebook has made no secret of its reasons for buying Oculus VR, the company that kickstarted the virtual reality craze: Mark Zuckerberg and co. see virtual reality as yet another outlet for social interactions at some far-distant point in the future. Can’t get the family in one room? That’s fine, just load everyone into VR and you can all hang out. It’s a cyberpunk dream, straight out of Neuromancer—albeit a dream that’s a long ways off.
But Facebook is forging ahead, taking those baby steps. Yesterday it released Spaces, its first attempt at a social VR hub, onto the Oculus Store. The irony? The social media giant is neither first out the gate, nor the best option.
Cold and sterile
I spent maybe 30 minutes messing with Spaces yesterday, so consider this impressions more than a review. That’s a safe assumption anyway—Spaces is technically an “Early Access” title for Oculus.
Like, really early.
It’s basically a virtual watercooler or maybe a conference room. The idea is you can gather friends or family—or, more likely, whichever random acquaintance you know that also owns an Oculus Rift—in a virtual room and hold meetings, chat, look at pictures of someone’s kids, take selfies, draw things, and what-have-you. “Socializing,” for the digital age. Facebook, but in 3D. Oh, and you can take selfies of your digital self.
You start by making your own Facebook Spaces avatar, which seems a bit silly considering Oculus Touch already compels you to make an avatar. It seems like those two divisions, one at Facebook and one at Oculus, probably should’ve linked up and done half the work. But hey, it was sort of fun to make my thousandth digital representation of myself, choosing eyes and a nose and hair. There aren’t really any “novelty” features, no giving yourself horns or wings or even neon-colored hair, but I suppose that’s because Facebook is Serious Business.
That problem extends into Spaces as a whole, really. It’s just so cold and sterile and boring and Facebook-y. Once done sculpting your Very Realistic Persona, you’re put in a room with a single table, a few tools, and a stretched image of a campsite around the edges.
That campsite and accompanying campfire is the one cozy touch in what’s otherwise a very safe and business-like environment. Games of tic-tac-toe and a floating piece of pizza can’t hide how nu-corporate Facebook’s Space feels. It’s like a Silicon Valley board room with an N64 tucked into the corner that nobody actually uses—but hey, potential new employee, it’s there and you totally could use it. Just nobody does and nobody ever will.
The rest of the features are stuff you’ve seen done in VR a million times over. What’s there is fine, very polished, but it’s nothing amazing. You can take a marker and draw, like an ultra-limited Tilt Brush (or a corporate whiteboard). You can play tic-tac-toe. You can wear hats.
Facebook’s one novel feature results from integration with its own platform—you can pull pictures from your Facebook timeline and display them poster-size to everyone else in the room. It’s very simple to do so here, and the social integration is nice if you thought Facebook needed another way for acquaintances to bore you with pictures of their kids. But aside from that virtual let-me-pull-out-my-wallet-and-show-you-these-2-by-3s-of-my-children, the results are the same as using a VR desktop or movie theater and looking at pictures/film at seemingly movie theater sizes.
It’s…underwhelming. And this, coming from the company that literally bought a VR platform just for these sorts of experiences.
Even if you concede that social VR will one day be a thing—and that’s certainly not a given—Facebook isn’t even as interesting as some of its peers. New Retro Arcade: Neon, for instance, lets you and five friends hang out in an ultra-detailed ‘80s-style arcade, playing air hockey and bowling. If you’re willing to put in some work you can even add your own custom soundtrack (All Journey, All The Time), run your own film files through a mini movie theater, and patch in a MAME emulator so you and your friends can play actual arcade games. Now that’s a social experience.
And while New Retro Arcade: Neon plays to a certain nostalgic niche, there are others just as polished and just as expansive. SportsBar VR (formerly Pool Nation VR) simulates air hockey, pool, checkers, shuffleboard, chess, and darts, plus music and custom avatars. Tabletop Simulator lets you play all manner of board games and tabletop RPGs, with thousands of experiences modded in by the community over the years. Then there’s Rec Room, a freebie in which you can create an avatar, party up with people, play paintball and dodgeball and charades and disc golf and more.
Sure, none of these are social-first experiences, but that’s because people rarely socialize in a vacuum. They go to bars, they voice chat while playing video games, they hang out and watch movies together, they get food, they gather around a table and play board games.
Social VR already started, and it looks a lot more like real life than Facebook is willing to admit—it’s people doing things, while also occupying the same area together. The focus is on the environment and what you can do in it. That’s what makes people want to be there in the first place.
Spaces is more like video chat: A novelty, but both less convenient than a phone and more awkward and stilted than real-life interaction. The Facebook hooks are nice, but there’s zero reason to engage once you’ve grown tired of expanding your dank meme collection up to house-size and drawing crude images in the air.
As with Oculus itself, I can’t help but feel Facebook has its priorities backward. Both companies are acting like VR is already mainstream, and they’re building VR experiences for a mainstream audience—one that absolutely does not exist, in the current landscape. The problem: “Fake it ‘til you make it” is a dangerous attitude with early adopter tech, and Spaces demonstrates that Facebook either doesn’t really understand why the current (small) crowd of VR enthusiasts is drawn to the medium—or doesn’t care.
Worse, it demonstrates a tenuous grasp of what “social” actually means outside of a Facebook feed. Not great, when being social is your core business.