Watch Mark Zuckerberg awkwardly tour hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico in VR

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg took center stage ahead of the Oculus Connect 4 show set to take place on Wednesday, October 11, to show off the abilities of the social VR app Spaces. To highlight its ability to generate a real sense of presence, he and his co-presenter visited some of the devastated areas of Puerto Rico — and the way they handled it didn’t go down well with all viewers. Zuckerberg has since apologized for any offence caused.

One of the most amazing aspects of virtual reality that was obvious from even the earliest Oculus developer kit headsets was its sense of presence, of immersion in a setting. Whether it’s used in terrifying games or real-world refugee camps, it can enable empathy more than any other medium when done correctly.

That seems to be the tone Zuckerberg was going for when he virtually visited hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico to talk about some of the relief efforts made by Facebook, which owns Oculus. If that was the plan, however, it didn’t appear to be clear enough for Zuckerberg’s co-host and head of social VR development at Facebook, Rachel Franklin, who encouraged an awkward high-five while virtually visiting a devastated street.

Zuckerberg was criticised in the press and by viewers for effectively using a disaster struck area to market a product. In a series of responses posted on Facebook, Zuckerberg acknowledged that the message he was attempting was unclear and that he apologized for any offence caused.

“One of the most powerful features of VR is empathy,” he said. “My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what’s happening in different parts of the world. I also wanted to share the news of our partnership with the Red Cross to help with the recovery. Reading some of the comments, I realize this wasn’t clear, and I’m sorry to anyone this offended.”

He followed up that statement with a further comment that suggested he did feel empathy for Puerto Rico while in virtual reality, but that that did not appear to have translated in the two dimensions of the video.

“When you’re in VR yourself, the surroundings feel quite real. But that sense of empathy doesn’t extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That’s something we’ll need to work on over time.”

He went on to mention many of the things that Facebook has done to help Puerto Rico, including how the Red Cross is using its data to try and map out where people are and to help coordinate elements of its disaster response. That was something that Zuckerberg discussed in the original video, along with how Facebook has donated $1.5 million and the time of many of its technical experts to help get the country back online again. But in the same breath, he was keen to show off the ability of Spaces to make you feel as if you’re really visiting some of the ravaged areas of Puerto Rico. As TechSpot points out, despite Facebook’s efforts to aid affected Puerto Ricans, the video still felt crass.

As for Facebook’s Spaces app, it is expected to be a big focus of Facebook at the Oculus Connect 4 show, as it is clearly the intention of the social network to leverage virtual reality as a new method of interaction. Virtual meetings and social events are becoming much more easy to handle in virtual reality. Microsoft’s recent acquisition of the AltSpace VR platform, software, and its announcement of new social features in the Windows Mixed Reality platform, alongside HTC’s VRChat investment, suggest that this could be the next virtual battleground for some of the biggest tech firms.

Updated 10/11/2017 by Jon Martindale – Added Zuckerberg’s response to criticism.