You can't high five one another IRL but you could be able to in VR soon
We all know that video calls aren’t a replacement for IRL socialisation but given the limits still in place on meeting with friends and families, Zoom and WhatsApp are our apps of choice for after-work drinks and pub quizzes.
One company wants to improve your digital hangouts with an added dimension in virtual reality. XRSpace is a new company from Taiwan which wants to bring social VR to the masses. Founded by Peter Chou, the former head of HTC which pioneered the earlier smartphones and VR headsets, the company has created its own headset, alongside its own social VR world named Manova that it says will transform the way we interact.
Speaking about the launch, Chou said: “The singular goal of XRSpace is to take XR [mixed reality] to the masses by redefining how people connect, socialise and collaborate by simplifying the hardware and user experience. When XRSpace started three years ago, we have been laser-focused at putting regular customers in everything we do.”
Let’s start with the headset, named Mova, which is expected to cost $599. XRSpace says this is the world’s first 5G consumer mobile headset, using Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 845 Mobile XR platform, though it also works on a Wifi connection as well as 5G. The headset is also equipped with sensors so it can tell where your hands are in order to use them in the virtual worlds to shake hands or cheers with a drink, without the use of external hand sensors.
Then there’s the actual platform, Manova. This is a social reality platform in which people can interact with one another thanks to their full-body avatars. Take a selfie on the accompanying smartphone app and see yourself transformed into a Sim basically. Then you can invite your friends over for movie nights, go to baseball games together at the local stadium, or explore the other virtual spaces in the world.
The XRSpace Mova headset is powered by 5G (XRSpace)
It’s not just social events that are receiving the VR experience but also offices and classrooms. “We’re continuing to think what social experiences can we bring into the world,” said XRSpace’s president, Sting Tao. “We all know that in the lockdown that are many things that aren’t happening. But co-workers need to be together so we have designed virtual meeting rooms with laser pens, projections, human touch.”
Bank partners have been trying out this feature and hope to extend it for scenarios such as remote training. “We think this work together experience is a revolution and people will love it,” adds Tao.
The company has also worked with partners such as Resolution Games to bring its Angry Birds VR game into the world, along with AirPano, a VR project by a group of Russian photographers which creates incredible aerial photos and videos of locations so you can experience them virtually.
Hang out with your friends in the Manova city (XRSpace)
It’s certainly impressive watching the demos of how the world of Manova looks. But it’s not hard to compare XRSPACE’s new project with all the previous attempts of VR socialising that have gone before it, such as Facebook’s Spaces project.
“This looks like a widely ambitious expectation given the track record of the technology to date, but it seems that Peter Chou and his team are determined to try and succeed where others have failed with this project,” said Leo Gebbie, senior analyst of wearables and VR at CSS Insight.
Though people are spending less during Covid-19, the pandemic has also demonstrated how much we all love human interaction and that could help something like this take-off. “There is little doubt [global economic turmoil] will make it challenging to sell the XRSpace service. However, we believe there has been an uptick in interest in extending reality experiences as a result of the pandemic as people consider new ways of working and interacting in a socially distanced world,” added Gebbie.
There are ways to interact in 3D that don’t require VR tech, like Virtway. The Spanish tech platform creates 3D worlds that allow interaction and voice communication in real-time through avatars. It launched in the UK in April, and has seen a 575 per cent monthly increase in demand for its offering during the pandemic.
Virtway builds 3D worlds for events such as a conference or a graduation ceremony. People can interact on any device, like a smartphone or computer, as long as they have a 3G connection. Once in the app, they customise their avatar and profile and get ready to go. People can chat to one another thanks to spatial 3D audio too. “The system works much like a walkie-talkie; users just have to hit the talk button to be able to communicate via their microphone and those around them will hear what they are saying", explains founder and CEO José Antonio Tejedor.
People take part in conferences and virtual events via 3D avatars using Virtway's tech (Virtway)
This also means you need to be near someone to chat with them. In an expo area, for instance, you must walk over to the person you want to communicate with. It works better than video conferencing in work settings: “The users are much more engaged and “present” in this case. Participation and retention rates are much higher,” says Tejedor.
Virtway hopes to offer VR events in the future but given the low adoption rates of VR headsets, the focus is on the 3D version. “Until VR headsets are a common household item, we don’t see the point in launching the VR platform. For now, it is more of a priority for us to make our platform as accessible as possible to all types of users around the world while still providing them with a fantastic user experience,” he adds.
By combining the headset with the VR world, Chou thinks XRSpace is onto a winner. “We’ve been working really hard for the past three years to make this seamless and intuitive experience and make the use case more relevant to our day to day lives,” he explains. “Now with 5G, we’re working with mobile operators so we can go to market together.”
Facebook is also experimenting more with VR, with plans to launch its new social space Horizons later this year. The company’s head of VR, Andrew Bosworth, recently posted a teaser video on Twitter showing how VR could become part of the new WFH normal: the video showed how users could project their office desk at home, complete with multiple PC screens, by using an Oculus VR headset.
“We’re always experimenting with future concepts using different hardware configurations as part of our proof-of-experience process,” said Bosworth. “As we think through supercharging remote work and productivity, we've been working on mixed reality concepts that build on existing technologies like Passthrough to allow people to switch between real and virtual worlds.”
XRSpace isn’t launching its tech and social worlds until the third quarter of this year so it isn’t here to replicate your Saturday night pub trip just yet. Chou wants us to think more about the possibilities: “You could do exercise with your friends even though you’re not in the same city or countries. You can easily get together with people - that will really change our lives.”