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Humans and technology

Facebook’s head of social VR admits there isn’t much to do in its social VR app

Rachel Franklin says she’s working on it, and she also talked to MIT Technology Review about how virtual reality is becoming more inclusive.

Even though there aren’t a ton of people using virtual reality yet, Rachel Franklin, Facebook’s head of social VR, cares a lot about connecting those people who are checking it out. This, she thinks, will be key to helping VR catch on with consumers.

Just over a year ago Franklin oversaw the rollout of Facebook Spaces—the social network’s first effort to show the outside world how you might hang out with friends in a virtual world. It features avatars that you can customize based on your Facebook photos, and a few activities, such as doodling in 3-D with a giant marker, that you can share with a buddy if you can manage to find one who also has an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive VR headset to interact with in Spaces.

Rachel Franklin's and Mark Zuckerberg's avatars during a 2017 demo of Facebook Spaces showing images of hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.

At Facebook’s annual developer conference in San Jose, California, on Tuesday, Franklin showed what she and her team have been up to since then: things like the ability to take 3-D objects posted within your News Feed to Spaces, and a demo of an app that uses photos and videos (of your fifth birthday, for example) to create 3-D replicas of rooms (say, your childhood dining room) that you can explore with others.

On the sidelines of the conference, Franklin talked about what she’s learned since Facebook Spaces debuted last May, and about how important it is to make all kinds of people feel welcome in VR.

Spaces has been out for a year. What’s one thing that you’ve learned since?

People really care about their avatars. Which I don’t think is terribly surprising, but is reassuring and awesome. It’s great that you want to have a say in your identity, that you care that it has enough customization that it feels like you.

You said last year that you kept Spaces simple on purpose. One common criticism is that there aren’t enough things to do in there. Is it too simple?

I think it was not surprising that we got the feedback we got, which was: “There is not enough to do here.” But I think it was an important lesson for us to learn.

We’re sort of scrambling to give you more to do. That is legitimately something people will say—“I don’t know what to do next, or I don’t have something to do next”—and we’re trying to do as much as we can to figure out what those things might be.

As women with long hair, we’ve both noticed that it’s a lot easier to keep a ponytail up while wearing Oculus Go, Facebook’s new all-in-one headset, than with its high-end, PC-tethered headset, Oculus Rift. Do you feel like designers are starting to think more about making headsets comfortable for all kinds of users?  

I do. It says that this isn’t just for niche technophiles that want to feel cool. This is technology that’s important for everyone, so we want to make everyone feel like they should be using it.

And it’s clear whether somebody didn’t think about you when you put something on. I’m left handed so it constantly happens with scissors and things—it’s like: clearly you didn’t want left-handed people to use this. It kind of makes you go okay, you don’t want me here. I think this is a really, really key message: we want people in this technology because we think it’s valuable for [them].

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