Stalking the stage at F8, Mark Zuckerberg, and later the company’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, laid out the next phase of Facebook’s vision for getting you to take your Likes, emoji reactions, and personal connections into VR using tools like the Oculus Rift.
That enhanced commitment took the form of Facebook Spaces, an app the company demonstrated on stage and released to Oculus Rift users right after the event ended. To introduce us to the app, a video shows people interacting from their home Rift set-ups to communicate via Facebook Spaces avatars in VR.
It’s the realization of a vision Zuckerberg teased just last year, giving friends and family located many miles apart the ability to jointly experience virtual places (apartments, landscapes, etc.) while using the Rift’s built-in microphone to communicate via audio.
For those already invested in the Rift hardware and its associated software ecosystem, Facebook Spaces comes off as a strong signal that the Rift is truly out of experimental territory and is now a full-fledged part of Facebook’s overall front-facing, consumer-ready product arsenal.
It’s an exciting development, especially when you see how Facebook Spaces allows people who aren’t in VR to communicate with people who are. This could be the software breadcrumb app needed to push some Facebook users into using VR regularly. And Facebook should be credited with rolling this out to its most passionate VR users (Rift owners) first, instead of the usual tactic of prioritizing the cheaper, mobile-focused Samsung Gear VR when it comes to new VR software.
But while Facebook excels in its execution of the social VR features and avatar visualizations, there was a bigger part of the VR equation it missed: Actually getting more people (read: non-geeks) to try and buy the Oculus Rift headsets necessary to use Facebook Spaces in VR.
It’s time to show us he can convince the general public to take a chance on VR.
Usually, when Facebook announces something as cool as Facebook Spaces, you can almost feel the excitement ripple throughout social media. But that overall muted response to Facebook Spaces is rooted in the fact that many people still haven’t even tried the Oculus Rift, much less think it’s a totally normal thing to strap one on and sit alone for hours chatting in VR with the avatars of your friends.
Over the years, Zuckerberg has proven that he can grow in many significant ways. First, as a public speaker and even as an ambassador for the company who no longer develops flop sweat under pressure. But the one thing he has yet to prove to us is whether or not he can sell the mainstream public on a totally new and unfamiliar platform like VR hardware and software.
We know he can sell us on updates to Facebook and Instagram apps that we know and love, but it’s time for him to show us he can do what tech icons like Steve Jobs could: Convince the general public to take a chance on something new and sort of weird.
Within the Rift-loving community, there are already concerns being whispered that Facebook is slowly consuming Oculus, and that soon you’ll need a Facebook account to even use the device (something the company’s now departed founder, Palmer Luckey, promised would never happen).
But there’s a far greater potential problem for Rift users beyond their ambivalence toward Facebook — the survival of VR itself. Whatever Zuckerberg decides to do with Oculus, his acquisition of the company and passionate advocacy of the platform is the best thing that could have ever happened to VR. Remember, he has the ears and eyes of over a billion users worldwide.
But despite Zuckerberg’s commitment to VR in general and Oculus specifically, to the tune of several billion dollars, it will all be for naught if Facebook simply “assumes” that everyone will just “figure out” that VR is so cool and useful. Trotting out social media VR studies and engaging already devoted VR users simply won’t be enough.
If social VR is really going to be a major foundation of Facebook’s future, Zuckerberg needs to hit pause on the software updates and focus a lot more on presenting a compelling and easy-to-understand narrative as to why mainstream users should carve out some of their smartphone and desktop computing time for an extended dip in VR.
Until he pulls that trick off, Facebook’s VR future will be one primarily of interest to the small community already drinking the virtual Kool-Aid. What Zuckerberg has to start selling is the VR Coca-Cola, and fast — before Facebook loyalists start questioning his taste and stop paying attention to his predictions of a social VR future.