We have long known that virtual reality was going to come to Facebook sooner or later. After that historic acquisition of Oculus back in March 2014, speculation has been rife about what the social media giant plans to do with the virtual reality company that started out as a humble project on Kickstarter.

But now we know. Facebook Spaces is the first major social VR release from the company, designed to allow users to hang out in virtual reality as an avatar. At present, the Facebook Spaces app functions as a kind of VR talk show which can be streamed to all a user’s followers. Though the hosts of the VR talk show need to be in an Oculus Rift, audiences can access it from desktop and mobile.

Integration with Facebook Live

Of course, it’s not going to be just an avatar or two talking in a blank space. Spaces can also be integrated with other media, such as regular and 360 videos, drawing with virtual markers, and using Messenger to dial in video calls with non-avatar participants. Just like regular Facebook Live broadcasts, those in Facebook Spaces can also interact with text comments. Having this Facebook Live interaction functionality spreads the reach of these Spaces broadcasts further, which, of course, is a great ploy to get many standard users interested in purchasing a Rift so they can host their own.

Not many people have a Rift yet. The need to own a powerful computer first, before you even get to the cost of the hardware itself, is still prohibitive for most people, but – as we all know – those prices will come down. Mass adoption could be on the horizon, but – particularly for certain brands – getting involved in live broadcast Facebook Spaces now may be an opportunity to get in on that coveted early-adopter advantage.

The Problem With Facebook Spaces

The Facebook Spaces news broke first at the Oculus Connect dev conference last autumn, with public release announced at the F8 conference in April 2017. At first, the news was met with a bit of shoulder-shrugging. After all, who really wants to hang out in VR with four friends displayed as rather clunky-looking avatars? That’s what the news comprised of then. The new announcement of Live integration makes Facebook Spaces a lot more interesting.

There is some potential for Facebook Spaces broadcasts to take off, maybe in the same way that YouTube vloggers now dominate the Google-owned video platform. However, our guess is not. It’s a bit of a novelty, and we just can’t seem to get past how awfully basic the avatars look. They’re going to need to get a whole lot better before people are really interested.

So, perhaps the idea is limited. There’s little to suggest overwhelming enthusiasm. Indeed, a brief search on Facebook for “Facebook Spaces Live Broadcast” turns up lots of news, and a few videos, but no actual live broadcasts at all. Where are these broadcasts hiding? Has anyone actually done one?

It actually seems a little sad to don a heavy headset to have experiences with friends that aren’t really… well… real. Yes, if you’re all lucky enough to be Rift owners you can have a laugh decorating a virtual cake or take selfies whilst visiting a simulation of some famous monument, but is that really fun? Maybe for a 10-year-old. And what 10 year old has a Rift… let alone a Facebook account (you have to be 13 to join Facebook)?

Social AR

Whilst there are many reasons that Facebook Spaces could flop dramatically, it’s very likely that Mark Zuckerberg is more than aware of this. Spaces marks just another incremental step in the journey towards real social VR. So, what exactly is Zuckerberg really warming us up for?

Virtual reality, in fact, may not be the way to go at all. Zuckerberg has already presented a rough idea for AR glasses, which may be a much better bet. Social AR, where a simulated version of your long-distance friend can appear next to you on the sofa in your real living room sounds much more engaging. With your AR glasses on, you can sit and watch TV together… without even owning a TV. You can make eye contact with one another, use real hand gestures, show each other real stuff. That’s more like it.

Trouble is, this tech is far from ready. Facebook VP Deb Liu has stated that the hardware was “just 1% finished”. That’s a long way to go. But it will be much more worth it. Think of all the friends and family you miss from across the world, or are just too busy to make plans with.

The whole idea of Facebook in the first place was to bring people together, not isolate them even more in rubbish avatars in non-existent places. If Facebook can hurry up and get this AR idea off the ground, it will be achieving that aim a lot better than it is now.