Social VR: What’s Wrong with Facebook Spaces and vTime

So, what do I consider to be true social VR?

If you do a Google search for the phrase “social VR”, you get websites for the following four products within the very first page of search results:

I have blogged about AltspaceVR and VRChat before on this blog (click on the links to see my blogposts), but I haven’t really talked about Facebook Spaces and vTime before. It’s time to address that, and I’ll explain what I consider to be “true” social VR.

Facebook Spaces 23 Feb 2018

Frankly, I am still rather mystified as to why Facebook released Facebook Spaces. I can only assume that they felt some pressure to release something to market.

What the product currently offers is not terribly impressive. Your avatar is basically locked in place at a round table in a parklike setting, where you can invite other Facebook Spaces users to join you at the table to chat, share photos and videos, draw in midair, go ice-fishing, etc. But there’s not really a lot to do. Now, you could argue that there’s not a lot to do in Sansar, High Fidelity, and Sinespace either, but at least you can move around in a three-dimensional space! You can easily break off into side conversations, for instance. You can explore.

I also have a problem with the cartoony avatars in Facebook Spaces. This was actually a deliberate design decision:

Facebook’s head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, told Business Insider that the decision was down to a phenomenon called the “uncanny valley”.

This is where a robot or avatar looks very like a real human, but not quite. And the effect is so unsettling that it makes you feel ill, or even scared.

“If we go too realistic at this stage, there’s the risk of uncanny valley,” she said. “When it’s almost realistic and just off enough that, instead of paying attention to you and having an experience where I’m talking to you, I’m thinking how [your avatar] doesn’t look like you, and how it’s not quite your mouth.”

Uhh, sorry, Rachel, but I think it’s more distracting that your avatar looks like a bad cartoon. And I’ve never yet met anyone who has felt ill or scared just by how an avatar looks. I’m not buying it. You just decided to go with something quick and dirty to rush a product out the door. Facebook Spaces avatars remind me of the ones in AltspaceVR.

Facebook/Oculus has the potential to become the 900-lb. gorilla or social VR/virtual worlds, leveraging off their already-two-billion-plus installed user base in products like Facebook and Instagram. But with all the money that Facebook has, and with Oculus VR hardware a key part of their company, Facebook Spaces is the best that they could do? Really?!?? Facebook must have something else up their sleeve. I refuse to believe that Facebook Spaces is the only social VR product they have planned.

But the biggest problem I have with Facebook Spaces is that most people using it don’t have anyone else to connect with! For example, I am (with one exception) the only person in my entire social circle who owns a VR headset. So what’s the point of using it at all? You do have the option to video call friends without VR headsets via Facebook Messenger from within Facebook Spaces. But really, who is actually going to do that over using Messenger on your phone? I’m going to go put on my VR headset to call someone on Messenger? I don’t think so.

Like Facebook Spaces, vTime is a social VR app which also locks your avatar in place. You can’t move around at all, you are glued to your seat. However, it does have an advantage over Facebook Spaces in that you can at least select an environment in which you and up to three other avatars can chat, everything from a romantic tropical beach to a rainy Chinatown rooftop.

vTime 23 Feb 2018.png

If you are using vTime, both you and the people you want to chat with have to have the vTime software installed, and you need to have a VR headset (they just announced support for the Windows Mixed Reality headsets). And there’s still not very many people who have the hardware to do this, yet. So they have the same problem as Facebook Spaces. Who do you talk with? Usually, it’s strangers who happen to be logged into vTime at the same time you are.

Now, you might say that all social VR spaces have this problem. But what Sansar, High Fidelity, and VRChat offer is an opportunity to let both VR and desktop (non-VR) users connect, in three-dimensional virtual worlds that you can actually move around in. And that’s what I consider true social VR. What’s the point of using a VR headset and being in an immersive, three-dimensional environment at all, if you’re just going to be locked into one place? 

UPDATE Feb. 24th: Vicky Roberts left a comment and said:

Hi Ryan, vTime is currently available for Gear VR, Rift, Windows Mixed Reality, Google Cardboard, Google Daydream, and for Android and iOS phones in a 2D Magic Window mode – so you don’t need a VR headset at all.

Why Women Don’t Like Social VR: Interview with Jessica Outlaw

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Photo by Samuel Zeller on Unsplash

Enrico Speranza in my RyanSchultz.com Facebook group alerted me to a very interesting podcast put out by ResearchVR, who describe themselves as follows:

We are three Cognitive Scientists discussing Virtual Reality and Cognitive Research, Industry News, and Design Implications! We actively research different aspects of the field, and are involved in various companies related to the topic of VR. With this podcast, we hope to use our commentary to bridge the gap between news and established science. We break down complex topics, discuss the current trends and their economical impacts, and broadcast our views on VR.

The podcast episode in question was an in-depth, 1 hour 15 minute interview with Jessica Outlaw:

Behavioral Scientist Jessica Outlaw is an outspoken Social Scientist in the field of VR User Experience Design. She recently published an Inductive Qualitative study with Beth Duckles, PhD about the experiences of “Millennial, tech-savvy women” in Social VR applications (Altspace, High Fidelity, Facebook Spaces, etc).

In this episode, we talk embodied cognition, implicit biases, gender differences in social behavior and navigation in an unfamiliar environment, as well as the questions the paper raises up about inclusivity and approachability in design.

This is a long, wide-ranging interview touching on a lot of topics. Of particular note is what Jessica has to say about her research on women’s experiences in social VR applications. She wanted to know what tech-savvy younger women, new to social VR, had to say about their experiences.

Most of them found the social dynamics to be very disconcerting. The women had no idea what the social norms and expectations were in the social VR experiences they visited over a thirty-minute period (Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces). Many women felt unsafe; some women felt that their personal spaces were invaded by other avatars. Talking to another person in social VR wasn’t seen as an attractive alternative to other forms of communication.

One of the four recommendations Jessica makes in her research report is that privacy must be the default in social VR applications, for women to feel safe. Another recommendation was to make social VR enticing and fun to do, and let the community form around their interests, as this leads to better behaviour overall.

Near the end of the podcast, Jessica and the ResearchVR co-hosts discuss a recent news story where a woman was harassed in a VR application called QuiVR.

I was also interested to hear that Jessica also did some work on a project for High Fidelity last year, around the question of what makes people feel welcome in an online community, and what’s appealing to people.

Here’s a link to the ResearchVR podcast. And here’s a link to a card series on Medium that outlines Jessica’s research findings, with quotes from the women interviewed. You can also request that Jessica’s full research report be emailed to you at her website.

Jessica also talked about her follow-up study, a user survey where she got over 600 responses. I’ll be very interested to read what she learns from her ongoing social VR research.