Whenever anything new comes out in the digital space, there are always two reactions: "Wow, awesome!"; and "What do we do with it?"

Those were the reactions when Twitter launched and they were also the reactions when Facebook released Facebook Live. They're the reactions we're feeling now in response to the launch at the F8 Developer Conference of Facebook Spaces.

The virtual reality app is Facebook's first contribution to their own Oculus Rift platform, the VR technology that the company bought in 2014 for $2 billion. It's tempting to think of Spaces as a bit like an enhanced, virtual Second Life, the old digital world that allowed people to roam around, meet and chat with friends and strangers online using animated avatars.

But Spaces is both a lot more than that... and a lot less. There's less functionality. According to Wired, Facebook intentionally stripped out complex games and activities because it found that people would play instead of socialize. The focus in Spaces is entirely on exploring content and on communicating with friends, exactly the sort of activities that people do on Facebook.

So when you join the world, Facebook allows you to create a cartoon avatar using your Facebook images. It lets you view timeline content against a 360 degree backdrop of your choice. You can post selfies and you can draw pictures in mid-air. But Spaces really comes to life when you bring in other people, and at the moment, they have to be people you know.

Messenger works within Spaces, so you can video call from the virtual world to someone you know in the real world. They see your avatar, which sounds odd, but for the first time it brings the world of VR into direct contact with people outside that space.

More importantly, you can bring friends in VR into your own virtual space. You can stand together and talk, look at photos, and chat in exactly the same way that you might do in a conference call --or at a conference. The promotional video that Facebook released to go with the app shows a couple planning a vacation by flying over the river they're intending to visit, a woman showing her apartment in 360 degrees to a friend, and a group of scattered friends celebrating a birthday in virtual reality.

Those are all suggestions, and it's easy to see how they could work. It's also easy to see how scattered teams could get together in meetings that feel real even when the team members are in different parts of the world. Launches that might have taken place on a Facebook page could take place in front of a virtual audience. Content made for customers can become much more engaging when customers can virtually explore it and marketing material can be made much more persuasive when a virtual sales person is in the same room to guide leads through it.

None of that is happening yet. Facebook Spaces has only just launched, and it's only available on Oculus Rift, which is a pretty niche market. But as people start to play with it, and Facebook starts to track what people do with it, businesses will also start to come up with their own ideas about how they can use it. At that point, we'll know what to do with Facebook Spaces... and it will still be awesome.

Published on: Apr 20, 2017
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