Mark Zuckerberg put on an Oculus Rift this afternoon and used Facebook’s new virtual reality platform, Facebook Spaces, to transport himself to Puerto Rico, the Moon, and his house. He broadcast the moment live on Facebook in what turned out to be a rather strange demo of a social platform that doesn’t have a clear use yet. In particular, Zuckerberg’s choice of locations emphasized just how odd it’ll be to watch other people in any sort of serious situation in virtual reality.
Zuckerberg’s first stop, along with Facebook social VR chief Rachel Franklin, was to Puerto Rico, where he stood in front of a 360-degree video from NPR documenting the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. He used the opportunity to discuss what Facebook is doing to aid relief — including donating $1.5 million and sharing data with the Red Cross — but it was all pretty strange to watch for what perhaps should have been an obvious reason: Zuckerberg was represented by a floating cartoon character.
Cartoon avatars make plenty of sense for the typical use of Facebook Spaces, which is mostly just meant as a digital hangout spot for early adopters of the Oculus Rift. But it clearly isn’t an ideal way to discuss hurricane relief efforts, particularly for a Silicon Valley billionaire doing his best to stay in touch Americans outside of the tech world. It made lines like, “It feels like we’re really here in Puerto Rico,” stand out for clearly being so far off from the actual experience, even though NPR’s reporting may well start to convey an idea of what it’s like.
Zuckerberg seems to have realized that the experience didn’t translate for viewers. He responded to comments a day later, saying, “When you're in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn't extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That's something we'll need to work on over time.” He added that his goal was to show how VR can raise awareness to what’s happening across the world. “Reading some of the comments,” he wrote, “I realize this wasn't clear, and I'm sorry to anyone this offended.”
After discussing Facebook’s contributions to Puerto Rico relief efforts on the stream, Zuckerberg and Franklin then transported themselves to the Moon and later to Zuckerberg’s living room, to see his dog. The stream also dropped out at one point and they had to start over again.
Facebook released Spaces in April after debuting the platform a year ago, at the Oculus Connect conference. His livestream today comes just days before the fourth annual Oculus Connect, which kicks off on Wednesday. A keynote is planned for 10AM PT that day, and today’s broadcast suggest that Facebook likely has some news in store for Spaces.
Update October 10th, 3:35PM ET: This story has been updated to include comments from Zuckerberg. It has also been corrected to note that Facebook is directly donating money for Puerto Rico relief; it matched donations, as this story originally stated, for Harvey relief efforts.