Ever wondered what it would be like to eavesdrop on a conversation between two creative technology specialists?

Following the launch of Facebook Spaces – Facebook’s VR app which was released last monthm ss ng p eces has given shots exclusive access to director Sam Smith (who was behind Facebook Spaces' F8 launch video, below) and recently hired director of immersive content, Mike Woods, to get their take on the future of VR and social technology.


Zuckerberg’s latest release reveals his VR plans for the social platform following his $2 billion investment in Oculus Rift.

The app allows users to virtually hang out with their Facebook friends and chat in person, share new experiences and create anything they like using the virtual marker - a tool that you can draw and move drawings with. But the app also connects people in real life to the virtual world through its Messenger video calling function – enabling users to share what they've ‘seen’ and ‘done’ virtually with friends in the real world. Like the lead image, which is a picture of Woods and Smith as their animated selves posing in Facebook Spaces.

Currently the platform only exists in beta stage but many are starting to review how this development will affect the industry.   


The Evolution of Games & Accepting the New

Mike Woods: What interests me most about social VR are the lessons we can learn from the internet, when it began to challenge and inspire existing entertainment mediums, and how we can apply them to VR.

We saw an interesting shift when internet connectivity and the ability to socialize came into gaming. The numbers of people around the world that got involved in the massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) are astounding; a recent article in Forbes reported an average of 100 million monthly active players on League of Legends alone. Directors and producers on the advertising creative and filmmaking side can’t get their heads around League of Legends and Clash Royale, but I figure there are more people online playing those games than people going to the cinemas in America. So, here we have a very recent and brilliant example of how social integration can boost an entertainment medium massively.

So, when we talk about adding a social layer to a form of media, the prospects get very exciting. The games world found a really clever way to adapt to that social layer and interconnectedness, and it changed the landscape in games dramatically. Film and TV is still figuring it out, and audience participation into that kind of content hasn’t really been put into play. I’d love to think that there’s enough brainpower in VR and filmmaking to construct experiences where we could bring social ideas into more linear content, and to do that I think we’d be wise to study what’s been done in gaming. We need to make a mental distinction between interactivity and what makes things actually social. 


Sam Smith: Something I’ve been thinking about in the context of every new technology that comes along is that there seems to be a backlash where people freak out and say it’s going to change the way we’re interacting for the worse. This happened with telephones, it happened with the internet and email, social media, and now we’re seeing that same level of backlash and skepticism for VR. After Mark Zuckerberg first posted about Spaces, the comments were half, “Thank you, this is great!” and half “This is insane! People will isolate themselves even further, it’s terrifying!” 

I subscribe to the idea that adding a social component to VR allows you to engage more deeply with people despite geographical barriers, which is the opposite of isolation. So I think it’s actually about finding new ways to connect with people.


Woods: As with all new major technical advancements, as creatives, we need to find ways of unlocking them and play around in the space with simpler ideas that are easier to implement. This world is new for brands and IP holders, and they need to be able to wrap their heads around the social integration piece and what it brings to immersive experiences. VR can be a very intense solo experience, but where it’s at its best is when groups of people can come together in a shared space.


Importance of Social Interaction

Smith: Has there been any one VR social experience where it’s working? Where making social connections has been strong?


Woods: Yes, probably Rec Room [which is like a VR social club]. It’s not really a game as much as a social recreation room for your avatar with simple parlor games initially, but now branching out into proper missons. It’s not heavy on the gaming, and there’s no high barrier to entry to understanding what you’re meant to do. There’s a paintball game in Rec Room, and I’ve probably spent more time there than in anything else. You can play paintball with the added joy of being in the room with three or four others; there are tasks to achieve; and you’re meeting people and chatting at the same time. It’s very compelling to be running around trying not to get shot, whilst also asking what the weather is like today in the Ukraine.


A YouTuber explores Rec Room:


Another thing I got into is The Wave VR. It’s a giant nightclub world where you can make friends and DJ and go to a rave with friends. Certainly as a teenager, this would have been amazing— DJ-ing and simulated psychedelic experiences in VR.

The best experiences are often the simple ones. I hate bringing up Pokémon Go, but a similar version of that game existed in a much more convoluted form years before it became all the rage. Keeping it super simple and adding a household name IP, and you’ve had one of the most successful “games” of all time. It doesn’t matter that the graphics are simple, all the effort has gone into the clever social interaction.


Merging Business with Pleasure 

Smith: I love that you’re mentioning social interactions. If you said, “Oh, there’s a Paintball game for PS4,” I’d be like “MEH…” but the second you put that in a VR social space, it becomes more interesting and more about what you can get away with. 

Like on Facebook Spaces, we started drawing and we spontaneously started playing a makeshift version of Pictionary. All that was given to us was a marker, but we spent an hour coming up with our own stuff, and that’s where social VR goes beyond what video systems connected to the internet can do. When you’re in Medal of Honor or a social game online, you’re married to what is presented to you because you can’t explore beyond what you’re given and that exploration is what’s super fun about the social VR space.

I would also love to have business meetings in VR. Whenever I’m presenting, it’s challenging to convey visual concepts over the phone or over FaceTime but if we were all in the same space, I could pull out a document or photo and look at it together with my collaborators or clients, and point out things and highlight them. I really think social VR has this opportunity to be both a business and entertainment tool.


Looking to the Future 

Woods: I do see collaborating in VR as part of the creative process, but know that it’s happening in our own bubble for now. You can say the same about any number of tools.


Smith: If we are functioning in an insular way, isn’t that almost how Facebook started? It started with an insular idea and someone landed on something where it evolved in a whole new direction. So I see this as still being very much in that primordial ooze where we’re kind of figuring it out. Within the last year, everyone has been wanting people to experience VR together, and now we’re at a point where we can do that —but it’s still very early.


Woods: The opportunities are enormous but the same barriers exist when you introduce a social aspect across any medium. Controlling the conversation is hard when people can say and do what they like, fires can burn so quickly on social media. Clearly the earliest brands to explore social VR activations will be the brave ones. 


Smith: Experiencing anything as a group is always more fun than going it alone and that aspect of social VR should be interesting to brands. Could this benefit advertising? Absolutely—the potential for triggering conversations or shared experiences is so much greater. Imagine if you were presented with the option of test driving a new car on the Autobahn with your best friend in the front seat, wouldn’t that be amazing? I also think there are great brand opportunities for simple things like pitching a tent. In VR you can get together with your camping buddies to test out how easy or difficult it is to put up different tents if you’re in the market and want to comparison shop—you can’t ever really pitch a tent before you buy it in real life!


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