Facebook Spaces: VR as the future of socializing?
In April 2017, world’s biggest social network introduced Facebook Spaces – a new virtual reality app where you hang out with your friends in an interactive virtual environment, no matter where you are. While there has been considerable debate on virtual reality (VR) being a next level of physical isolation, Facebook argues that it is the opposite. According to Facebook, “Facebook spaces is a new way to connect with friends in VR” and by using it, “[…] you can hang out in a whole new way – together” (Franklin, Oculus). Their new technology, which is launched in beta for Oculus Right and Touch, is what Facebook calls a social VR technology. Even though virtual reality has a long history and is in fact not new at all, Facebook advocates its technology as a new, emergent form of communication and networking, that has given VR a unique role: to serve as a social tool. According to Facebook, social VR technology “will continue to transform the way people around the world stay connected with their communities and those closest to them” (Franklin).
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Video: Introducing Facebook Spaces, Facebook
The social aspects and purposes of virtual reality have strongly evolved over time. Since the first VR simulator The Sensorama was invented in 1956, the concept of virtual reality has continued to fascinate engineers, scientists, and the general public. Considering the availability of more advanced computers and the increasing efforts of researchers, VR technology has made substantial progress in the past decade. Accordingly, the growing interest in virtual reality has led to numerous applications of this technology in automobile, aircraft, entertainment, medicine, sports and other industries as well as in education and training (Leu et al.).
The Sensorama, created by Morton Heilig, was a multimodal experience display system that enabled an augmented film experience via sights, sound, scent, wind and vibration. It was the first approach to create a VR system, and stimulated the senses of an individual to simulate an actual experience realistically. According to Heilig, there were increasing demands for “ways and means to teach and train individuals without actually subjecting the individuals to possible hazards of particular situations”, using the armed services, the industry and education as an example. The design of his invention however, demonstrates that VR technology started out as an individual experience, rather than a social one. Whereas what we define as social, is relating to “activities in which you meet and spend time with other people” (Cambridge Dictionary).
In 1965, Ivan Sutherland introduced the concept of The Ultimate Display: an artificial world construction in which the user can interact with objects in some world that does not need to follow the laws of physical reality. Produced at Harvard University, it was a scientific concept that Sutherland described as “a looking glass into a mathematical world” (506). It was a chance to gain familiarity with concepts not realizable in the physical world, such as “predicting where objects will fall, how well-known shapes look from other angles, and how much force is required to push objects against friction” (Sutherland 506). It was meant to serve as many senses as possible and to extend the mechanisms of vision. Since virtual reality was still at an early stage during this time and numerous technological advances were being made, there was little focus on the possible (social) implications of this new technology.
From the 1980s, more academic work began to appear on the moral or ethical dimensions of VR systems. As explained in the book The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, each new development is usually accompanied by conceptual and moral uncertainty: “What will it do to the relationship between government and citizen? Between employer and employee? Between businesses and consumers?” (Johnson 65). These challenges were often leading to bigger social issues such as metaphysical challenges presented by VR, issues raised by VR for personal identity, and the implications of VR in relation to economic realities of globalization and the emerging information economy. Especially the developed capability of computers to be networked so that multiple users can share a virtual reality and interact with its simulations simultaneously, has opened whole new avenues of human activity (Stanovsky 170). The shared availability of virtual reality makes possible what William Gibson describes in his early novels of a computer-generated “consensual hallucination” (Gibson 51). Up to now, a collective virtual reality has enabled a wide variety of human interactions to be implemented in this technology, such as communication, art, politics, romance, sex and violence. However, “the possibility of the creation of entirely new forms of human interactions and practices that have no analog or precedence outside of virtual reality always remains open” (Stanovsky 170). That is why Facebook has introduced a new shared social world: a bright utopian possibility that creates a unique form of online socializing using virtual reality.
In the 1990s, virtual reality started shifting away from individual experience to a more ‘social’ experience with a broad distribution of VR gaming machines found in video arcades. The first public venue VR system was called Virtuality, and launched in 1990. It was a dual player VR arcade system that included a head-mounted display (HMD), hand-held prop, and ring platform for each participant. As VR had made its way into the gaming industry, interactive computer games started offering a new level of sophistication and a ‘collective’ experience.
Today, virtual reality has been applied to many aspects of the modern society and became an increasingly important technology in a number of fields. With the introduction of Facebook Spaces, Facebook attempts to transform this modern society even more. Facebook advocates her new technology not just as any type of virtual reality, but specifically as a social one. In doing so, Facebook tries to break with previous or dominant visions of the purposes of virtual reality. Even though social networks and virtual reality seem like two unusual things to be together – assuming that one is about connecting you to the rest of the world, while the other appears to do the opposite – CEO Mark Zuckerberg envisioned a world where virtual reality would be a place for communication, not isolation.
According to Rachel Franklin, Facebook’s head of social VR, “you’re connecting with each other in a more immersive way as an extension of who you are” (Facebook F8 conference 2017). This corresponds with the promise of Spaces to make virtual reality more personal and more relatable than ever, in order to be social in a way that no other VR technology was before. It also fits Facebook’s mission to “give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together” (Facebook). Yet, Spaces is not just social for its ability to bring people together or overcoming physical distance, since this had already been achieved in VR thanks to telepresence: a technology that “allows users to communicate with distant people as if there were in the physical presence of each other” (Stanovsky 169). In Spaces, all functions rather focus on socializing and maintaining social relations, such as taking selfies with you and your friends’ avatars, celebrating birthdays in VR, or even discussing questions with your college professor.
What Facebook desired to create was a technology that allows you to socialize as well as to be socialized. This means that besides participating in social activities, users of Facebook Spaces also become part of “the process by which a person learns and generally accepts the established ways of a particular social group, or society” (Kammeyer, Ritzer and Yetman 129). By being socialized, they are made to behave in a way that conforms to the culture of Spaces’ VR and that follows the rules and the design of this particular VR technology. This process is a combination of both self-imposed (the individual wants to conform) and externally-imposed rules, enforced by Facebook. By analyzing Facebooks statements that proclaim Spaces as ‘the’ new way to connect, it becomes clear that Facebook acts as a pioneer in determining how we become or behave social, and how this will evolve from here.
As the technology of VR continues to develop, the cultural and social impact will become increasingly visible. The growing blur between what is virtual and what is real is redefining the way individuals act on a social level, which brings up new points for discussion. If we start socializing in VR, how will VR technology alter our representations of the self and our construction of identity? Will new forms of subjectivity, collectivity and action emerge? And as with every new tool, to what extent will it replace our conventional social communication tools? How will it affect our social relationships?
Cambridge Dictionary. “Social.” Cambridge University Press. 18 September 2017 <http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/social>
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Sutherland, Ivan. “The Ultimate Display.” Proceedings of IFIP Congress vol. 2 (1965): 506-508.