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Facebook’s bold and bizarre VR hangout app is now available for the Oculus Rift

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It feels like the future

Photo: Facebook

Facebook’s most fascinating virtual reality experiment, a VR hangout session where you can interact with friends as if you were sitting next to one another, is now ready for the public. The company is calling the product Facebook Spaces, and it’s being released today in beta form for the Oculus Rift. The news, announced this morning at Facebook’s F8 developer conference in San Jose, means anyone with a Rift and Touch controllers can join up to three other people in a virtual playground. There you can watch videos, take photos, and engage in a number of different VR activities together.

Spaces was first shown off at the Oculus Connect conference in October, when Mark Zuckerberg donned a Rift onstage and joined other Facebook employees in an early version of the product. We saw the Facebook exec play a game of chess, teleport to different locations, and even take a mixed-reality selfie with his wife Priscilla Chan, who dialed into the VR room using Facebook Messenger. While it built off similar experiences, like the existing Oculus Rooms feature for Gear VR and Oculus’ Toybox demo from two years ago, Spaces was bizarre and powerful enough to get everybody talking about what the future of VR technology could enable.

“We wanted the idea out there,” says Mike Booth, a product manager on Facebook’s social VR team, on why the company showed off Spaces so early. “Last year at F8, people didn’t know what Facebook was doing buying Oculus.” But by the time Oculus Connect rolled around that fall, it was clear Facebook was pursuing VR as a “people-centric computing platform,” Booth says. Having Zuckerberg demonstrate it was a way to communicate that to the world. The strategy worked — the demo became the most talked-about part of the conference because it illustrated exactly how Facebook imagined VR as a social instrument and not just a way to play immersive games.

Spaces as it exists today is not so different from the demo Zuckerberg showed off. You have a floating torso for an avatar complete with clothing and a custom animated face you get to design yourself. That avatar is then dropped into a roundtable environment with a number of different tools at your disposal, accessible from a panel under your wrist and from a console in front of you on the table. The entire idea of Spaces is to treat the platform as a place where you both create and pull in outside content to interact with, be it doodles you make yourself or games you play right there in VR, to photos and videos from across the internet.

Photo: Facebook

For instance, you can toggle through the console to the art tab to produce a virtual pencil and start doodling in midair. Anything you draw is transformed into an interactive object, so you can illustrate a hat you can then wear on your head or a sword you can pick up and swing. There’s also a selfie stick that lets you snap portraits of yourself and your friends inside the VR environment.

Sitting in the center of the room is a sphere of sorts that can change the background around you. It will accept any number of pre-rendered options, like an underwater environment or one that sends you to space. But you can also scroll through your Facebook account, find a 360-degree photosphere made from a smartphone panorama, and turn that into the environment. Booth says this is a way to relive memories with others. “It’s not like a chatroom. It’s not like, ‘Okay, we’re here. Talk amongst yourselves,’” he says. “You have your Facebook content. I’ve got mine.”

All of this Facebook media can be brought into VR, Booth adds, including videos from your timeline or popular ones going viral on the platform. In my demo with Spaces, a Facebook employee pulled up the new trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi on a large virtual flatscreen floating in front of us. We also drew snorkels for ourselves to hang out underwater and were able to save those images to bring back later. Though we didn’t try out this feature in my demo, you can also bring people into your VR session through a video call on Facebook Messenger, which Zuckerberg showed off back in October.

Another intriguing aspect of Spaces is its emotion engine, which Booth says is designed to humanize the avatars through a mix of smart software and touch-controlled triggers. Because the Rift headset can’t yet analyze your eyes in real time, Facebook Spaces will have your avatar blink at random moments in procedural fashion, to simulate how a real person might do so unconsciously. It does the same for quirky facial cues like a coy eyebrow raise.

Photo: Facebook

Booth says that because social VR is restricted to goofy and experimental interactions, it’s easy to exclude more serious expressions like furrowed brows or grimaces. Nobody is getting fired from their job in VR, he says, or delivering bad news to a loved one, at least not yet. So Booth’s theory is that the software can stay restricted to the fun stuff for now.

Other emotional signals can be controlled by the user. Using the Touch controllers, you can make your avatar elicit surprise by holding your hands up to your cheeks, or pretending to be scared by placing your hands over your eyes. Think of these as VR emoji. “It was challenging to find the right balance,” Booth says, mentioning the uncanny valley, or the point at a which a computer-generated human being creates a feeling of revulsion, instead of empathy. “A lot of it is an art and engineering blend.”

It’s that blend that made my brief time with Spaces feel alarmingly real. Despite the cartoony avatars, the experience can have an eerie and discomforting feeling at first, as if the other person you’re interacting with is just an automated program or a clever bit of AI software. Booth says this is likely because I had never met the person I demoed it with. “Try it with someone you know,” he suggests.

Yet after a few minutes, the strangeness dissipated, and I was doodling happily and marveling at my fast-changing surroundings as we swung through space and the ocean floor onward to a beach setting. After the demo, when I met the Facebook employee I had been interacting with, I felt unusual. I hadn’t seen this man before, I remember thinking, but we’d definitely already met. We even took a selfie together.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified Mike Booth as the head of social VR at Facebook. He is a product manager for social VR; the head of social VR is Rachel Franklin.