I’m living Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s dream, enjoying life in virtual reality, munching virtual cheesecake that’s thankfully kilojoule free.
I’m eating this cheesecake slice standing behind a bright blue virtual table that’s totally at odds with the tranquil surroundings of a countryside park complete with canoodling couples, a lake and jetty, and lots of grass and trees.
There’s space at the table for three Facebook friends I can invite and with whom I can share photos and chat.
Welcome to the world of Facebook Spaces Beta, the first iteration of the social network’s social virtual reality experience. Anyone on Facebook can share the park experience with their friends. You can invite them to lunch, and together chat, share photos, draw objects, take photos — even selfies.
I say “anyone” but in reality, getting together in Facebook with your friends is strictly for early adopters. For starters, you need to own an Oculus Rift VR headset, a pair of Oculus Touch hand controllers, and two Oculus sensors that can process both headset and Touch movements.
That’s around $1300. And you need a fast computer to process the VR stream. That adds up to more than $2000 unless you already own the gear.
Then you need patience to go through the set-up. Go to the Facebook Spaces web page (facebook.com/spaces), link your Facebook and Oculus accounts, and download the Facebook Spaces app, which you find in the Oculus Store.
The first version of Spaces isn’t sophisticated. Facebook would likely agree. It estimates the high-quality VR experiences it wants to offer are five to 10 years away.
The Beta experience restricted us to this park. Rival ecosystems such as AltspaceVR let you navigate rooms, buildings and mazes, walk with friends in VR, watch Netflix with them in a virtual theatre, attend foreign language classes together. Each person is represented by an avatar and can interact with other avatars.
Readers will remember me attending the Prince Purple Rain memorial concert last year held by AltspaceVR on a virtual island. I could virtually move around the island and chat with Prince fans. Prince clips from YouTube played on a big virtual screen in the background. In VR it looked huge.
Facebook’s Beta is restricted to standing at the table, and sharing media with friends. This will change radically once Facebook has spent up to $US3 billion on VR, as it says it could do.
Nevertheless, there were fun things to do at the table. I could change my avatar: the cartooned version of me that appears in VR. Select a Facebook photo of yourself, and the app will generate a selection of cartooned images. You can choose whether your avatar wears glasses, and change their T-shirt colour and style.
The fun starts when you point your finger at the buttons on the virtual console. The “media” button lets you choose photos to show friends around the table. You can select galleries of saved Facebook photos, timeline photos, photos posted by your followers, or explore 360 degree experiences offered by Facebook.
You can pick up a virtual pencil, select a colour and start drawing in midair. I played virtual noughts and crosses in this way.
You can also make video calls to Facebook friends in the real world from your VR world but I’d recommend warning them first, otherwise they may get a shock when they are greeted by you as an avatar. And it can be tedious scanning to find a Facebook friend online to call.
That’s about it. It’s early days but if anyone can pull off social VR, then it’s Facebook. One day, when one of your contacts has a birthday, you may be invited to a VR birthday party where you mingle with that person’s friends.
Or when you travel, Facebook might invite you to share a virtual space with like-minded travellers where you can swap notes.
This is the start of Mark Zuckerberg’s VR dream, the notion that people will don headsets and share VR experiences together. It began in 2014 when Facebook paid about $US3bn to buy Oculus VR. In February last year, Zuckerberg announced he would turn Facebook into a “Social VR” platform. “In the future, VR will enable even more types of connection,” he said.
But he’ll have to decide whether Spaces becomes an exclusive platform for Oculus users with cash to splash to join the platform or whether the imperative is to allow as many as possible on to it. That means developing a cheap headset, or opening the platform to third-party devices such as Samsung Gear VR and others.
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