An attendee waits to try the newly announced Facebook Spaces virtual reality platform during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam
An attendee waits to try the newly announced Facebook Spaces virtual reality platform during the annual Facebook F8 developers conference in San Jose, California, U.S., April 18, 2017. REUTERS/Stephen Lam

Working out why Facebook was so interested in Oculus Rift became something of a thought experiment after Mark Zuckerberg’s $2bn purchase (£1.54bn) of the virtual reality (VR) tech firm in 2014. Granted, buying up innovative companies is a great surrogate to an original idea, but VR and a site full of cat memes aren’t exactly an obvious pairing.

The recent unveiling of Facebook Spaces has brought The Zuck’s plans for VR into sharp focus though.

Second Life
Facebook Spaces is exactly what it sounds like, a place where members can hang out with the avatars of friends in virtual reality. It’s a sort of modern PlayStation Home that makes use of both types of VR – the cheap version (a Google Maps-style photo sphere that users can step into) and the more dynamic worlds that typify video games running in VR. For example, a person could join a friend in her apartment using a static, panoramic photograph or head out on a realistic (albeit pre-recorded) cruise.

Here’s the thing – it’s a very old idea. As mentioned, PlayStation Home, Sony’s “most successful disaster” to quote Kotaku, was released in 2008 and popularized the idea of a virtual, social world players could live in, play games, and introduce their internet girlfriend to their internet mom. It was an expansion of an idea that Second Life created 13 years ago. And, while neither platform is a VR application (aesthetically, they resemble casual MMOs), they’re significant for refusing the moniker of “game” – both Second Life and PlayStation Home are “spaces” to play in.

Plenty of developers are now moving towards a more immersive, social environment for their content and games. AltSpaceVR, an app with 114,500 users according to Steam Spy, preempted Facebook with its customisable spaces (there’s a Dungeons and Dragons-themed one for tabletop gaming). For those who can’t yet afford the hardware needed for VR, there are plenty of immersive experiences online. For instance, the Betway Casino brand has improved interaction between players and dealers with a live format for its roulette game. It’s much the same experience (anybody familiar with the standard roulette rules will have no trouble picking it up) but the wheel is spun by a human croupier on webcam. There’s also a growing niche of live callers on bingo websites; again, the rules don’t change but the experience is altered to have a more “human” face. Getting back closer to VR, Pokémon Go turned catching digital monsters into a community endeavour via the magic of augmented reality technology.

PlayStation Home
Facebook Spaces faces two problems though; firstly, the number of possible adopters on the social network is very small. Cost is still a huge barrier to entry for VR (the HTC Vive is £759 in the UK, with the Oculus Rift priced at £500 – that’s not including the hardware necessary to use either device) but even if every single VR adopter in the world a) has Facebook and b) is interested in Facebook Spaces, the total user base is likely to be around 171m in 2018; that’s only 1.4% of the 1.23bn people who log into Facebook every day.

With the above in mind, Spaces is a $2bn investment in a future that hasn’t arrived yet, with likely uptake figures on the wrong side of a decimal point. It’s also part of a genre marked more by failure than runaway success. PlayStation Home was little more than a pretty chatroom, albeit a briefly lucrative one, before it closed in 2015, while Second Life has 600,000 monthly users (down from 4m in 2007) because it stopped being a pure “space” and became something closer to a hyper-social Minecraft, implementing 3D modelling and procedural scripting.

The second issue with Spaces is redundancy; text and emojis are far more expressive than the “dead-eyed digital mannequins” (to quote engadget) that users interact with in the Spaces world. The platform is a solution looking for a problem: increasing immersion in online casino games brings the pastime closer to its offline variant and there’s an obvious appeal to setting Dungeons and Dragons nights in a VR medieval tavern but other than friends separated by the Atlantic or people with limited mobility, Spaces has a limited audience.

Elite Dangerous
Facebook needs to do what Oculus Rift was already doing back in 2014: concentrating on PC gaming. The best VR experiences out there, titles like Elite Dangerous, The Climb, and Resident Evil 7 succeeded because they helped present a VR headset as a portal to another world. Capcom’s survival horror recouped its development costs in less than a month, shipping 3.5m copies to date, while Elite Dangerous VR hit 1.4m despite occupying the rather niche genre of flight simulation. It’s the only chance most of us will ever get to fly an asteroid miner through space or climb a mountain with zero cardiovascular ability. Conversely, Facebook Spaces forces its players to make an unpleasant choice – “do you want to meet me online or in the pub?”

There’s some evidence that Spaces is the start of something bigger though. Facebook recently teamed up with Blizzard to allow players of Overwatch and World of Warcraft to sign into their accounts with credentials from the social network and to stream games on Facebook Live. It’s obviously a massive leap to imply that data sharing is indicative of some new VR application but there’s potential for Spaces as a vehicle for eSports streaming – and Blizzard is arguably the largest provider of eSports-friendly video games in the world today.

While it’s perhaps a little unfair to criticise Facebook Spaces so early in its lifetime, its success hinges entirely on its user base having the motivation to fill what is essentially an empty VR canvas. With far more engaging VR and social experiences on the way, like Star Trek: Bridge Crew, it feels more like a missed opportunity than VR’s killer app.