Why Standing Alone in a Dark Room is Actually a Social Activity.
First let me say I’ve partaken in the VR the Cool Aid, I have been waiting for VR to drop since William Gibson first described it. So, my opinions are, shall we say, a tad biased. That being said, there is a lot of pushback from the uninitiated suggesting that modern virtual reality is anti-social. Let’s unpack that in the context of the current state of social VR.
To be clear, we are almost all screen addicts. Recent stats from the United States show an alarming 10% increase in traffic fatalities last year. Why? Because of screen addiction: even if your phone is in hands free mode, your car is still trying to show you your facebook feed or try finding the FM radio, six menus down and all you want is some DRIVING MUSIC!
Also pedestrians are all jacked in to their screens too. No situational awareness. Pokemon Go deaths were just part of the tragic impact of screen addiction last year. So lets agree that we are deeply tied to screens already… so what’s the big deal about putting a couple on your face in a dark room?
It’s anti-social! I hear it all the time and I agree for the folks in the room/house with me while I am in VR. To them, I am no longer there. However VR itself is the most social thing I have ever done on my computer/smart phone.
Another confession: I am not a gamer. I don’t like consoles, I don’t like shooting zombies in the face, I don’t even like Tetris, but I love VR! Why? Because it’s social! I started with Second Life, sending it to my home-made mobile VR headset using TrinusVR and my Galaxy Note 3 and it worked! It was laggy, it was juddery, it was terrible, but it was social because my buddy was laughing at me over the Second Life voice chat! And I was THERE!
Next I tried VTime, again for the smartphone. Sort of like Second Life but optimized for Mobile VR and you can’t move around. Several different locations, including the outside of the space station. Very cool! Chatted with some folks from all around the world and I was there! (But I could only move my head.)
Next step was into AltSpaceVR. Wow! I can move, I can talk, I have hands (with Leap Motion)! There are rooms, experiences and nice people to welcome you when you first show up. Very cool. But the avatars are so basic! I understand they have to keep them low poly to keep everything running smoothly, but come on people! These avatars are… well: incredibly underwhelming, to say it politely.
I did experience live comedy with Reggie Watts in AltSpace and it was cool, if a bit goofy and it was super hard to meet up with my buddy as they kept cloning the performance room every time it got full (around 30 people or so.) It was new and novel but still I was looking for more.
So I tried Janus VR…that was cool, but too rough around the edges for my taste.
Then on to High Fidelity, made by Second Life founder Phillip Rosedale. Amazing techical support, great community but again looking so rough and the caching of environments takes forever. Like really, hours (hopefully a bug, as SL loads in under a minute for way higher impact scenes).
Having sampled everything but the porn sims, it was time to jump into the hard core social experience available from the great folks at VRChat. This is a gamercentric world of avatars, locations, teleport portals, movable objects and amazing scenery.
It’s fast, it works, the audio is positional and now that I have my HTC Vive I can pick things up and move them around as well as uploading my own avatar and scenes (via Unity, so not for the faint of heart). Amazing! And after some initial vertigo as I got used to the motion scheme, I attended the Sunday VR meetups I had been hearing about and was amazed by how fast time went and how friendly people are in social VR (at least for now)!
Fast forward a few weeks of trying to get Second Life to work in my Vive via www.CTRLAltStudio.com and finally it did! Amazing, a bit laggy but amazing! I am signing up for Project Sansar as we speak but also I have an appointment to visit with my VR friend Antony @SkarredGhost of Immotionar fame in BigScreen.
Setting up the room is easy, navigation is easy, changing settings is easy and then (other than getting stuck in the couch for a bit) we are together in social VR! Fist bumping, screen sharing, chatting with positional audio and even playing the same 2D game in VR while I am in Vancouver and he is in Italy somewhere! Again the time flies, but the tracking is so tight that I know when I meet Tony in real life I will know him because of spending time in social VR and now it is time to go. Sigh.
Another 3 hrs of life “wasted” in front of two screens at 90 frames per second in a dark room and I feel great! Because I have been investing time in relationships, learning, growing and participating in the modern resurgence of VR which I believe may, along with AI, deep learning and AR, totally change the world. In actual fact checking my twitter feed with my kids in the room is anti-social while VR is the exact opposite.
Author, Builder, VR UX/UI Testing Consultant