In a major about-face for the virtual reality teams at Facebook, the company announced a surprise Tuesday update to its VR "Spaces" app. The social media service's first VR chat app, still in beta and free, now officially supports its biggest home-VR rivals in the HTC Vive and the SteamVR platform.
This may come as a shock to anyone who has tried using Facebook VR software on rival hardware. Facebook and its home-VR company Oculus have spent more than a year telling customers that many of its major VR games and apps must remain exclusive to Oculus hardware, as opposed to being opened up and used by owners of rival hardware like the HTC Vive. This, in part, inspired a homebrew community to break Oculus' hardware-locking systems and prove that cross-platform issues were never technical. (The SteamVR platform, conversely, has supported outside hardware such as Oculus and Windows Mixed Reality from the moment those headsets reached the market.)
For now, anyone who wants to use Oculus Store content on hardware like HTC Vive must continue to employ software workarounds like "ReVive." But Facebook Spaces, as a separate, non-Oculus Store download, is arguably a much bigger piece of software to receive official rival support.
At October's Oculus Connect conference, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told a San Jose crowd that he wants "one billion people" (yes, B as in boy-that's-a-big-number) eventually using VR. This app's platform-opening change is a good indicator that Facebook may finally care less about which hardware someone uses and more about which software they use in any augmented, mixed, or virtual-reality interface. Getting more users into official Facebook VR apps may also be necessary for the company to test and harvest the data needed to achieve its lofty VR and AR goals, including geolocation tags of recommendations and friend moments that could appear in real-world locales.
The SteamVR version of Facebook Spaces, which must be downloaded from Facebook's official site and is currently Windows-only, is mostly identical to the Oculus one. The primary difference is that a few controls have been remapped from the Oculus Touch controllers to the HTC Vive wands, so a few finger-specific gestures are a little clumsier. But it's easy enough to figure out, and from there, you can create lobbies of up to four friends to have conversations, write notes, play with virtual toys, grab selfie-stick cameras, and pick through Facebook-feed content. As I found in my initial tests earlier this year, Facebook Spaces wins out by using a cute, expressive, Muppet-like avatar system and by keeping its chat system relatively simple and easy to figure out.
One welcome update has come to Spaces via an "experimental" toggle in its settings: Windows desktop support. This isn't quite the full desktop experience that Facebook wants to deliver via its Oculus Rift app, but it does let VR users point a stylus at their Windows desktop to mouse around and type into text bars via a floating keyboard without having to leave the Spaces app. For anyone who wants to have a legitimate 30-minute VR meeting with colleagues in Spaces, this productivity-minded tweak might very well be the difference maker.
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