When Facebook purchased Oculus VR - the company that makes Rift, a virtual reality (VR) headset - there were questions looming over how the social media/network company would leverage its newly acquired VR technology.
Facebook Spaces is one of its answers: a virtual reality meeting and interaction space within your Facebook account where your personalised avatar can converse and interact with up to three other Facebook friends, or video call others via Messenger.
Here's how Facebook Spaces works, whether you own the necessary VR hardware or not.
What do I need to use Facebook Spaces?
First thing's first, you'll need an Oculus Rift headset to enter the experience. Second, you'll need the Oculus Touch Controllers for the purpose of interaction - to navigate content, pick up and move objects, and so forth. You'll also need a computer setup powerful enough to run a Rift VR experience, which doesn't come cheap.
At time of writing, the headset and controllers cost £399 (down from £599), while the setup to run everything will vary. Point being, the minimum outlay means this hardware is likely to only be in the hands of those investing in VR for its wider uses, such as gaming, rather than solely for Facebook Spaces.
However, there's long been rumour that Facebook will release a far more affordable Oculus VR headset - presumed to be unveiled at Oculus Connect 4, held in San Jose, California, in October 2017 - which could open the doors to a far wider audience.
The Facebook Spaces app is available to download in the Oculus Store. This is the only route in to using Spaces as a user, which has been running in beta since April 2017.
Will only Oculus Rift work in Facebook Spaces?
We spoke with Rachel Franklin, Facebook's Head of Social VR, to query whether Spaces would expand beyond Oculus.
"The intention is to bring in as many people as possible. Starting with Oculus Rift and Touch, first we have to get the experience right, then we think about, 'ok, how do we take this to other platforms?'. Whether that's six degrees of freedom platforms [such as HTC Vive], and what that means on non-six degrees."
However, if you don't own Oculus hardware then it is still possible to receive Messenger video calls from friends within Spaces and witness them, presented as their avatar(s), interacting with their virtual world for your viewing pleasure. Like with any Messenger video call you'll be able to speak to one another.
What form do I take in Facebook Spaces?
The first thing the Facebook Spaces app on Oculus will ask you to do in Spaces - after logging into Facebook - is create a personalised avatar of yourself. It's quite similar to setting up a Mii character on Nintendo, albeit one without legs - literally, the avatar is a floating upper body only at present.
Spaces offers its users various skin colours, hair types and styles, facial details and glasses. Additional items are likely to be added over time - the clothing section, for example, was just four lots of the same tee in our example.
Franklin says: "I like to think of [the avatar] as your VR incarnation of your Facebook self; it's more of an extension [of yourself]".
What can I do in Facebook Spaces?
You can access Spaces on your own as a method to look through your own content, or with up to three invited friends simultaneously. Content is broken down into three main areas: Media, Tools, and Friends.
Facebook has, since conception, been a place for photos and, increasingly, videos. It's possible to pull-out and share Saved, Timeline-based, and photos and videos shared by friends and pages you are Following. When pulled out to share, they appear as a floating photo frame-like entity within the VR space.
With evolving media, Spaces also allows for interaction with 3D images and videos for a more immersive experience. These can be your own creations, or the 'Explore' option opens a bank of Facebook's own 3D content. From being at sea, to a safari, you'll be right in the middle of things, your avatar sat around a virtual table with your other virtual friends.
At present there are three main tools - Mirror, Marker pen, and Selfie Stick - plus a 'Drawings' bank which offers pre-made 3D objects and drawings, or you can create and save your own hand-drawn objects.
It's possible to grab any of these tools and reposition them. Take a virtual selfie with your friends. Select a drawing - like a dog face or bunny ears - and pop them onto your virtual self or virtual friend, before looking in the mirror to make sure it's positioned properly. Saved content can then be shared to your profile, if you wish.
The marker pen has four different nib sizes and a range of colours to select from, so you can draw in three dimensions in the virtual space. If you're feeling particularly arty then you can make proper objects to save and share among your friends.
You have to invite friends to join you in Facebook Spaces, which is only possible if they own the correct hardware. For those friends who don't own such hardware, it is possible to video call them via Messenger. Like crossing the virtual and real world bridge.
Franklin poses the question: "How do you take the core of being present with people who you care about and share content that you already have an attachment to - meaningful content - in a way that works for people?
"The aspirational aspect is one massive step and part of the reason we're putting in features that bridge VR to non-VR. It's important to expose people not just inside of VR, but also outside, so they can see it too."
How do the controls work in Facebook Spaces?
With an Oculus Touch Controller placed in each hand, your virtual hands and wrists appear within the Spaces world from your first-person perspective. Here are some core controls:
- Use thumbsticks in different directions to make your avatar pull facial expressions.
- Physically point with an extended index finger, raised from the controller, which can be used to select Media, Tools, Friends, Settings and so forth.
- Use both index finger and thumb triggers to grab/hold objects and move them around the virtual space. It's also possible to shake hands with friends, the Touch Controllers give haptic feedback to make this feel even more genuine.
- Physically turn your wrists over to answer/reject incoming calls and delete/save/duplicate held objects.
- "Eat" selected objects - by grabbing and pulling them towards your face - to make them fully expand; a 3D video orb from the Explore tab, for example, can be "eaten" to make it play.
Will Facebook Spaces ever be popular?
The big question is whether all of this will take off. Virtual reality is cost high and the user base currently low - in particular when looking at Oculus Rift's sole compatibility with Spaces, not the wider world of HTC Vive, PlayStation VR, Google Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, and so forth.
Critical reception has been varied, however. The Pocket-lint experience of Spaces was hilarious - in a positive way - because we got to have sword fights, scribble in virtual space, stick a dog face to the side of our Facebook colleague's face, and generally have fun. It was a whole lot of laughs, in fact, because it felt like a game.
But that with actual friends and family, presented on a timeline for all your social groups to see? Seems like a big leap to us, on both personal or business levels.
Franklin sees Spaces as an extension of Facebook's offering: "You have an investment in yourself and the things that you've saved and the things that you've liked from other people.
"One thing Spaces has validated for us [at Facebook] is that you can actually get in there, forget that you're wearing a headset, forget that you're a 'cartoon' and actually feel like you're having an interaction with somebody.
"The experience for the person in Spaces, or in real life on the end of the Messenger call, is actually meaningful."