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Why Facebook’s First Social VR App Is So Simple

Rachel Franklin, who led the rollout of Facebook Spaces as head of social VR, is preparing for a day when you hang out with your friends in a virtual world.

Facebook was founded on the premise that humans have an irresistible urge to connect with each other, and 13 years later 1.3 billion people use it every day to share status updates, selfies, and videos. While smartphones are currently the most popular way for people to access the social network, Facebook is making a big bet that in the coming years, its users will also want to do this kind of stuff in virtual reality.

That’s where Rachel Franklin comes in. As head of social VR since late last year, Franklin oversaw the creation and rollout of Facebook Spaces, an app that serves as Facebook’s first real showcase for its vision of social VR. In Spaces, which you can use with an Oculus Rift headset and its Touch hand controllers, you can pick an avatar based on your Facebook photos and meet up with Facebook contacts to do things like doodle 3-D objects in midair, watch 360° videos, and take virtual selfies.

Franklin has spent years in the video-game industry; previously she was the executive producer and general manager of The Sims for Electronic Arts. She spoke with MIT Technology Review about what drove Facebook to strip down its first social VR app to include just a few features, what makes a good avatar, and why virtual reality must become more social.

Virtual reality is still such a tiny universe—the vast majority of us don’t yet have a headset of any kind. Why do you feel social interaction will be key to its growth?

The need to connect is just a fundamental human need. The technology of VR allows you to feel present in a way that I don’t think we have ever seen before. It’s such a primal, visceral reaction you get. Which is why if you look at just a 2-D version of what we’re doing it’s like, “Um, what is that?” But if you’re in it, you’re like, “Oh, I get it.” Combined with people you already know, it’s like this crazy magic sauce of “I want to hang out with you; holy crap, you’re really there; now I can do that; now I can actually be with you.”

You came to Facebook after a lot of the experimenting had been done to figure out what should or should not be part of Spaces, but you’ve been working closely with Mike Booth, Facebook’s product manager for social VR, to figure out the core tenet for Spaces. What is it?

If something is not enhancing a social interaction between people, it doesn’t have a place in Facebook Spaces. One of the first experiences they built [was] this cool, like, woods, and a fishing game and things you could do, and [Booth said], “People literally got lost in the woods.” And so he’s like, “Let’s just make it straightforward, let’s make it like a dinner party, let’s put you around a table, everybody’s oriented to already be looking at each other.” And there you have it; it’s like the focus is on the people, which is where it should be.

From your work on The Sims you gained a lot of experience with 3-D characters. Did your team consider making the avatars in Spaces anything but cartoon-like humans?

[Booth] went through a phase where they were rabbits at one point.

Seriously? That’s amazing. Why rabbits?

I think what he was trying to go for was a couple of things. One was not falling into the uncanny valley, so if you think about, okay, let’s go to, like, Zootopia—like, oh my God, you fall in love with those Zootopia characters. Okay, what if you’re a bunny?

The problem is I can’t recognize you as oh, that’s Rachel, my friend.

What do you think makes a good avatar?

I think the biggest thing is that they’re charming and welcoming. And that they’re not necessarily exactly like you but that you recognize yourself, that there’s relatability in there.

There’s plenty more to do to feel like “Hey, I relate to this and I relate to myself.” Of course I notice stuff, like the hair. We had some ladies’ hair and I literally freaked out: “This is terrible! Whoever made this, we can’t ship with this!”

Hair is super hard. And I’m always like, okay, we have much more to do, but this hair was completely unacceptable. It was like big, thick slabs. You’d swing your beautiful hair and it would—it was not good. So from little things like that—“The hair is not acceptable”—to “Is it conveying the appropriate emotion? Can I feel like I’m with you? Is it welcoming?”

There are just a few activities you can do in Spaces right now. One of them is drawing 3-D objects with a big marker. Why?

We wanted a way for people to have something to do that wasn’t dictated by us. Because it’s like a 3-D printer, you can make a chess board, you can make a funny mustache, you can make hats. The open-endedness of that was pretty important for us to have in there.

Hardly any of my real-life friends have access to Spaces, because they don’t have Oculus Rift headsets (or any kind of VR headsets, for that matter). That makes it pretty lonely. How do you get people to use VR, and to use it together?

There’s a turning wheel that happens, right? Which is if I see a piece of technology but I don’t think it’s for me, I can’t relate to it, it doesn’t have something that’s compelling me to be interested in it, then I’m going to say, “Oh, I’ll wait, that’s not a thing for me yet.”

I think our desire is to create something where you can see it, maybe test-drive it if you get the chance and say, “Wow, this is something where if only I had friends in here too, I would want to do that.” That relating part is the first step.

The second thing is we’re hoping that people will see selfies and they’ll see people making messenger calls out [from Spaces to Facebook friends who don’t have VR] and kind of bridging the VR/non-VR gap, just to expose VR as a way to be social and something that is absolutely for everyone.

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