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Facebook’s head of social VR talks about the future

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Onstage at Oculus Connect this week, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that his goal is to get one billion people into virtual reality. Many of them will come to VR for an escape, the chance to step into fantasy realms or explore far-off places they can’t travel to in real life. Games are at the heart of the current Oculus experience.

But Facebook also imagines that much of the social interaction which currently takes place in phone calls, video chats, text messages, and wall posts will someday happen between avatars sharing a virtual world. Right now this kind of social VR is powered by a software platform called Spaces.

Rachel Franklin is the executive leading up the development of Spaces, and we got the chance to chat with her about the work she’s done since joining Facebook one year ago. Franklin shared details of the philosophy that drives her team’s design choices and how her background working on The Sims has shaped her approach to social VR. She shared her thoughts on what the most successful elements of Facebook’s push into virtual reality have been so far, and what went wrong with the recent attempt to marry VR to disaster relief.

So let’s back up a little. What led you to your work on The Sims?

I’ve always had a fascination with the interaction between technology and people. I’ve been in interactive media and games for over twenty years. It was an awesome way to take technology and psychology and kind of mash them up.

When you were starting out in games, how social was it?

Not at all. But there was the ability to forge an emotional connection with a character that wasn’t real. As you’re designing a game, you’re learning what are the cues that make the player care about a certain character. I think you could take a lot from that and help enhance the avatars we have today in VR that do have a real person behind it.

There is a balance there that we have to strike there. Go too far, and all of a sudden your avatar is making a giant guffaw sound with a big grin on their face and you think, I didn’t do that? You have to have agency over what your avatar is doing, but have it feel emotive, and expressive, without having to push a button each time you want to smile.

I played a lot of SimCity when I was a kid. Farm, RollerCoaster, Tower. I had a few friends, I remember, who were unemployed, playing The Sims ten hours a day, and it didn’t seem right, spending so much time tending your virtual garden. Obviously it was an amazing experience, but what about the aspect of people spending too much time in there.

Well, a couple things. First, cause and effect is obviously fascinating. If I do this, what will happen. Which is why something like SimCity, if I take away all the power, what are all the citizens going to say about it? But there is nothing as fascinating as people. There is nothing as fascinating as social cause and effect, which is why reality TV is so huge. If you put people in a room, and they can’t leave, and there’s cameras, what’s going to happen? Giving people a safe place to play out cause and effect is what makes The Sims so intriguing.

I’m a pretty light Facebook user. My wife is a heavy user and has a lot of people she considers friends who she has never met. Is that one of the places where VR will be impactful. Or do you think having the remove, just a little bit of text and imagery, makes it easier to share deep, dark secrets with total strangers?

Facebook is the ultimate matchmaking tool. If I think about myself, and the interests that I have, there are certain things I’m going to want to share with people who have that in common. As a new mom, I would have loved something like spaces. To not worry that I haven’t showered in three days, and I finally got the baby to sleep for twenty minutes, and i’m not sure if it’s time to start feeding rice cereal. Let me go into my new mom’s group and see if someone is just there to communicate with me. And I can show off cute pictures! That’s special.

So you’ve been at Facebook for a year. How has Spaces changed in that time?

I think what we really honed in on was purpose around the product. We talk about how it should +1 your relationship bar. We could create all kinds of experiences, like I was mentioning. We could create fully fledged games. But if the ultimate result of that is, I’m doing my thing in the game and you’re doing you’re thing, and we’re not communicating, then we’re not doing a service to the experience we’re trying to create.

Obviously it’s a great tool when you’re remote and can’t meet up face to face. But it’s not about meeting up with strangers to get to know each other. We’re starting from a place of friends and family. That was an interesting launch point. How do we take that existing relationship and enhance it. Eventually we’ll open up the platform and let people develop all kinds of stuff. But right now it’s about enhancing relationships. I don’t want to say better, because I think it’s valid if you have a long distance relationship and you have a fight with your partner. That’s still a real communication and it’s affecting your relationship.

Ok, so the mission of social VR at Facebook is to help people strengthen their relationships, especially when they can’t be together in person. You and Mark Zuckberg did a virtual tour of Puerto Rico recently to talk about the work disaster recovery work Facebook is doing there in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. This offended a lot of people, who saw Silicon Valley executives touring the ruined landscape without actually bothering to come in person and lend a hand. What happened?

Our goal was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. We also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross and Net Hope to help with recovery in Puerto Rico.

After reading some of the comments and hearing from the community, we realize our intention to demonstrate empathy from within VR didn’t come across, and we’re sorry to anyone this offended.

One thing I find tough about VR is that when I’m doing it, I shut out the people around me. It’s pretty odd to be in my living room but not be able to see or hear my wife and kids. How do you solve that problem?

Maybe it’s your night to take care of the kids. Your partner is out with friends. Once you put the kids to bed, you could log in and play a game of poker with your friends from the comfort of your living room.

It’s a different kind of friction. You have to put something on your head and your hands, but it’s not, well at least for me, putting on my makeup and getting ready to go out, which, going back to my new mom days, things like that seemed like such a big hurdle.

We’re never going to replace the experience of actual being with people, of being together in the same physical space. That’s not the intention. The intention is, how can you bring people closer together when they can’t accomplish that in person.

To check out video of Rachel and I hanging out in Spaces, click here.



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