You finally managed to get everyone together in one place. Friends you haven’t seen for ages, scattered around the world, smile and talk to each other across a table – a virtual table, in a virtual world, seen through a virtual reality headset. This is the future of socialising, according to Facebook.
The social network announced several new products at its F8 Developer Conference in San Jose this week, with a strong focus on virtual and augmented reality.
Facebook Spaces, its new VR app, lets you chat with friends in a 3D virtual environment. It’s the first real glimpse of how Facebook plans to make virtual reality a social tool after buying Oculus VR in 2014.
“VR is a technology that gives us something no other technology has before – a magical feeling of presence, the sense that we’re really there together even when we’re apart,” said head of social VR Rachel Franklin as she announced the app.
To create this feeling, Facebook Spaces lets you customise a cartoon avatar to represent you in the virtual world based on one of your Facebook photos. You can bring multiple people into the virtual space at the same time and chat as you usually would, using Oculus Touch controllers to move your avatar’s arms.
The VR app also draws on the wealth of content connected to your Facebook profile. You can overlay 360 images or videos from your Facebook feed onto the virtual space to plunge you and your avatar friends into a personalised environment, and flick through 2D photos with them.
Friends who don’t have Oculus Rift- and the headset is pretty expensive at around £500 – can be added to the conversation through video chat on Facebook Messenger. There’s also an MS Paint-style drawing tool so you can doodle in the air, though the focus of the app is on just hanging out and chatting.
This kind of social VR is essentially a “fancier version of Skype”, says Antonia Hamilton, a social neuroscientist at University College London. VR offers an advantage over video messaging, she says, because it can let us more easily communicate using nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and gestures.
But consumer headsets don’t capture motion or expressions well enough to make it look realistic in the virtual world. “Without capturing faces, you get VR characters which look very wooden and people often don’t like them,” says Hamilton.
In addition to virtual reality, Facebook is banking on augmented reality playing a role in our future communications. While its new AR tools are little more than Snapchat-like filters for your smartphone camera, the company clearly envisages a transition to wearable AR devices. “We want glasses, eventually contact lenses, that look and feel normal but let us overlay all kinds of information and digital objects on top of the real world,” said CEO Mark Zuckerberg at the conference.
With developments in AI, augmented reality will ultimately be so good that you won’t be able to tell augmented visuals from reality, says Hao Li at the University of Southern California.
But there needs to be a hardware revolution before social VR and AR can become mainstream, he says. Headsets are still expensive and uncomfortable, and cause some users to feel dizzy or nauseous. “Until this has been solved, I find it hard to believe that the content would be so good and so engaging that people would want to use it on a daily basis,” says Li.
And it remains to be seen how much social value these tools can really provide. At one rather poignant moment in the conference, Zuckerberg demonstrated using AR to add a second coffee cup into an image of a dining table – “so it doesn’t look like you’re having breakfast alone”.