Exhibitor Q&A: Mike Booth of Facebook Spaces discusses the future of social VR

Facebook Spaces is currently in Beta, but the application boasts a new way for people to interact with each other through VR. Described as a virtual environment designed to facilitate a more immersive way to spend time with friends, Facebook Spaces allows virtual avatars to draw 3D objects with virtual markers, video call your friends outside of VR, and transport you to different places.

Mike Booth leads the Facebook Spaces team and will be attending VRDC Fall 2017. He’s scheduled to give the talk Creating Social Experiences in VR. Here, Booth discusses the work he does and what the future of VR looks like for Facebook.

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Tell us about yourself and the work you do at Facebook.

I lead the Facebook Spaces team. We’re exploring social virtual reality, which is an incredibly exciting new frontier of computing. We’re basically trying to learn how VR technology can help people to connect with each other in entirely new ways, and then we’re building experiences to enable that.

As for my experience before Facebook, I come from a couple of decades working in the game development industry. I’ve had a few studios of my own and I also worked at Valve for a very long time, and at EA and Blizzard. If I’m known for anything in the game industry, it’s probably for creating Left 4 Dead.

What excites you most about VR?

VR is undiscovered country. It’s wide open. No one knows what the killer apps are yet, or even how user interfaces will work best. So it’s incredibly exciting to figure out these new computing paradigms. But even at a more basic level, VR is just an awesome experience. You can truly go anywhere and see anything. The thing I keep coming back to is how compelling it is to be in VR with other people, to experience all of these things together. That’s why I’m at Facebook working on social VR.

What do you think is the biggest challenge to realizing VR/AR’s potential?

Right now I describe VR as being in the “bag-phone phase” of technology. Back in the days of bag-phones, you could have your bag-phone in your car, and it was like “wow, I can make a call anywhere.” It was like magic. But at the same time, you needed this big bag in your car in order to do it. Over time, phones evolved, and now you’ve got this supercomputer in your pocket. It’s going to happen like that for VR: Someday you’ll have eyeglasses on your head that will be more powerful than any headset we have right now. So that’s probably the biggest barrier that we as an industry face: We just have to make the hardware faster, better, stronger, cheaper.

What does Facebook Spaces have lined up for the future?

The biggest challenge for Facebook Spaces, and for VR in general right now, is that there’s so much to do; everything is possible. So for now, we are continuing to focus on connecting you with your friends and family, finding ways for you to not only share content that you care about but also to bring you new experiences that are meaningful. We’ll be continuing to add new features and new tools to Spaces as we build out this ecosystem of “social building blocks,” as I call them. These are the building blocks that let you and your friends have fun and be creative in the space together. A recent example is the ability to broadcast Live from Spaces, which we just launched. It lets you and your friends share your VR experience with a larger audience, and we’ll be building more things like this.

Where do you see the future of social VR heading?

Social VR in the future is going to be extremely interesting. I think there’s going to be a continuum of virtual reality to augmented reality. Most things that you can do in Spaces today, you can imagine an AR version being possible someday. For example, in Spaces you have this watch on your wrist with tools and notifications — you can imagine an AR version of that same watch. When the technology eventually gets to the place where you’re sitting next to an empty chair and your friend can appear in that chair as if they’re really there, and you can talk to them, that’s the ultimate social VR / AR experience.

With advancing technologies, it’s easier to keep in touch and interact with people online. What makes VR better for social interactions as opposed to text or video?

It’s a continuum. There are use cases for every kind of communication, from text to video to live video conference, all the way to VR and AR. But there’s a major difference that sets VR apart, and it’s hard to explain if you haven’t experienced VR. It’s that feeling when you’re in VR with someone that you’re actually there with them — you are in person with them, you can reach out and touch them, you can have that personal interaction that you don’t get through a video conference screen. There’s also the utility of the 3D space — you can move things around and point things out within a space. If you’re trying to show something that’s more complicated than a 2D drawing, VR is incredibly useful for that. It’s interactive. And lastly, the most exciting thing in VR is that you have superpowers. You can go anywhere, do anything, create and build whatever you can imagine with the people you care about.

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