Virtual reality is still far from a mass-market technology, and recent price cuts suggest that Facebook’s Oculus Rift headsets are still not finding their way off store shelves. But the social network remains determined to give more people a taste of VR, even if they don’t have it on their faces.
Facebook’s latest effort makes this clear: on Wednesday, it will start letting people using its virtual-reality hangout, Facebook Spaces, to broadcast cartoonish avatars of themselves live on Facebook itself. That way, they can connect with the vast majority of Facebook’s two billion users, who use a phone or computer rather than a VR headset to view the site.
Never heard of Spaces? You’re not alone. The VR app, which launched in April, places users’ avatars around a virtual table, where they can talk and do a few things, like doodle in the air with 3-D markers and watch 360° videos that surround them.
So far, Spaces has left users rather isolated. While it already let them make video calls to non-VR users via Facebook Messenger and post virtual selfies on Facebook, the immersive experience is available only to those with an Oculus Rift headset, which is a small group. Beyond the 400,000 Rift headsets that tech market researcher Canalys estimates were shipped last year, another 99,000 or so were shipped in the first three months of 2017, according to figures from IDC. Facebook declined to say how many people are using Spaces.
Facebook’s product manager for social VR, Mike Booth, says that with the addition of live video to Spaces, a person (or group) broadcasting from within VR will get a virtual camera to hold and move in any direction. On Facebook, viewers can make comments that those in Spaces will be able to see and grab as if they were little signs.
“It’s really a way to break down this barrier between VR and non-VR,” Booth says.
Live video is increasingly popular on Facebook: the company says that one in five videos on the social network is a live broadcast. If the Spaces broadcasting feature works as Facebook hopes, it could get a lot more people familiar with virtual reality in general—and, in particular, with the company’s vision of how we’ll interact socially with the technology.
Still, Facebook probably has a tough task ahead. Using a cartoon version of yourself to communicate with friends is a novelty, but it’s not clear whether the average person really wants to interact with avatars over time. And there won’t be that many people to start these live broadcasts in the first place: I’ve tried Spaces out several times with an Oculus Rift, and I only know one other person who can do likewise.