Facebook launches Spaces as major foray into virtual reality tech

On April 18, Facebook announced the launch of Facebook Spaces at F8, the company’s semi-annual developer conference. According to the official Facebook Newsroom webpage, Facebook Spaces is “a new VR app where you hang out with friends in a fun, interactive virtual environment as if you were in the same room.” It launched in beta for the company’s Oculus Rift and Touch devices.

Facebook Spaces represents the company’s first step into making virtual reality. When Facebook acquired the VR company Oculus VR for $2 billion in 2014, some analysts and investors were wary of the purchase. They did not see much growth potential from Facebook’s focus in the field. VR technology, which completely immerses users in an artificial world through the use of special devices, was seen as niche, instead of something that could potentially become mainstream.

Some investors are confident in Facebook’s decision, believing that the company has both the talent and the resources necessary to innovate on new frontiers and drive growth. Facebook’s recent acquisitions highlight this ability.

When Facebook acquired WhatsApp for $19 billion in 2014, it received a large user base of more than 1 billion monthly active users of the popular messaging app, more smartphone engagement and more penetration into international markets that it did not have previously. The acquisition of Instagram gave Facebook a large user base, another platform for advertising and a means of directly competing with rival social network Snapchat. Instagram’s Stories feature recently attained 200 million daily active users, surpassing Snapchat’s 161 million and reducing Snapchat’s growth by an estimated 82 percent. Thanks to these acquisitions, as of press release, Facebook owns four of the largest social platforms. Its own app has 1.8 billion users, WhatsApp and Messenger each have 1.2 billion users and Instagram recently reached 700 million users, which now makes Instagram more than twice the size of Twitter.

Other investors point out the current flaws with VR technology. VR technology has had a low adoption rate. According to the “2016 Virtual Reality Industry Report” jointly issued by Greenlight VR and Road to VR, it was estimated that the VR industry is still years away from becoming a major market. There is also an initial high price point of $300 to $500 for a headset and controller peripheral. Alternatives, such as cheaper headsets or smartphones, have lower quality screens and lower refresh rates, which hamper the VR experience. Users of the technology complain of headaches, eyestrain, nausea and motion sickness. There is a physical danger present in that the headset user’s eyesight is obstructed, which could lead to them damaging themselves or people and objects around them.

The largest issue for VR is the lack of a “killer application.” A killer app is a computer program so desirable that potential customers would purchase the hardware it runs on just to utilize it. In the past, killer apps—like the VisiCalc spreadsheet program for Apple II computers and the Atari 2600 port of “Space Invaders”—have largely increased sales of the platforms they were available for. As of now, there are no apps available that could be considered a killer app for virtual reality. There is nothing that would cause most of the general public to purchase expensive, clunky VR headsets.

Nevertheless, virtual reality is currently seen as the next big step in mainstream tech, a step as big as the home computer to the smartphone, and a step that may sometime in the future even replace the smartphone entirely. This idea has led to dozens of companies either developing or investing in the space.

For example, Alphabet’s, Google’s and Microsoft’s virtual reality have VR headsets on the market and, according to Bloomberg, Apple Inc. recently hired Jeff Norris, an expert in both augmented reality and virtual reality who formerly worked for NASA. Facebook may need to be first in this area, or risk being left behind by its competitors. Therefore, Facebook Spaces is a much-needed foray by the company into the widespread adoption of virtual reality.

Augmented reality is another front that Facebook is trying to innovate on. Augmented reality places digital elements into the real world. Both Instagram and Snapchat have this function, where you can overlay a variety of faces onto your own or other people, or project digital objects, like rainbows, bushes and so on within reality.

Facebook, however, announced at F8 that it would do more with the technology, with the Facebook co-founder, chairman and CEO, stating, “I’m confident we’re going to push this augmented reality platform forward.” For example, people may use their phones to play games on tables, or leave virtual notes for other users to find, among other things.

Besides Facebook, other companies also see the growth potential inherent in augmented reality. Like with virtual reality, they are eager to develop and incorporate augmented reality technology into their products. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, has likened augmented reality’s future potential to how innovative the smartphone was, and has even stated that we will all “have AR experiences every day, almost like eating three meals a day. It will become that much a part of you.” To this end, Apple has created a special team of people with experience in this technology, people with experience in digital effects from Hollywood, and many small firms with knowledge of 3-D gaming as well as augmented reality and VR hardware and software. According to Bloomberg, the global market for augmented reality products is estimated to surge 80 percent to $165 billion by 2024.