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A Closer Look at Facebook Spaces, the Company’s First Social VR App

Variety logo Variety 4/18/2017 Janko Roettgers

Facebook unveiled its first foray into social VR at its F8 developer conference in San Jose, Calif., on Tuesday, giving users of the company’s Oculus Rift VR headset a new way to interact with each other through avatar-based chats and shared media experiences.

Spaces, which launched in beta for Oculus Rift on Tuesday, lets users design their own avatars, and then meet with up to three of their friends in a virtual space of their choosing. “VR is a naturally social platform, and we are building it with people at the center,” said the company’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin.

Facebook gave Variety a quick demonstration of Spaces after the keynote. Upon first entering Spaces with a VR headset, a user has to create his or her avatar as a digital representation of their persona. To speed up this process, Facebook accesses the last couple of photos that have been tagged with the user’s name — but users can also decide to start from scratch, and select the color of their avatar’s skin, the shape of their mouth, the hair style, and more.

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Users can then invite any of their Facebook friends to join them in Spaces; Facebook Spaces is also integrated with Facebook Messenger, so users can do video calls from within VR to talk to other Messenger users, even if those users don’t have a VR headset.

Once in a shared space, users can access a curated selection of 360-degree photos and videos to virtually “travel” to these locations. Users can also access their own photos and videos, and any media shared on their Facebook news feed. Traditional 2D media can be shared with friends within spaces on a kind of virtual screen.

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Spaces also allows users to create media, to a degree: The app comes with its own virtual selfie stick, which can be used to take group selfies in front of 360-degree photos and videos, making it more or less look like the avatars are visiting waterfalls and famous buildings around the world. Users can then share these selfies on their Facebook feeds, much like they would with a regular selfie.

There’s no word yet on when Facebook is going to bring Spaces to Samsung’s Gear VR headset, but it seems likely that the company will do so eventually. Spaces currently makes extensive use of the Rift’s Touch Controller, but actually requires very little movement — users are mostly standing around at a virtual table, browsing and sharing media while they chat with each other. It’s easy to imagine that at least some of that functionality could be made available with the Gear VR’s new handheld controller, or similar input devices, as well.

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Franklin also stressed Tuesday that it is still early days for Spaces. Eventually, the company wants to enable developers to build in-app games and media services, which could make it possible to, for example, listen to music together, or maybe play tabletop games.

To be fair, a lot of this already exists. Startups like Altspace have long offered users the ability to meet and interact in virtual spaces, and also opened up their environments to developers. But Facebook’s strength, and the area where Spaces shines, is its huge treasure trove of data that its users are already sharing every day via Facebook’s regular apps and website. Making that available within VR could give the company an edge — and maybe even convince consumers to pick up a 360-degree video camera themselves to capture more immersive memories.

“It’s sort of a magical canvas for shared experiences,” Franklin said.

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