When Mark Zuckerberg donned an Oculus Rift on stage at the Oculus Connect conference last fall to show off a group of avatars playing cards in virtual reality, it was meant to be a peek at the future of social networking. But it turns out that future is already here: Even without Facebook's direct participation, social VR is quickly becoming a thing.
Facebook's own Oculus Rooms social VR app (previewed last year) has yet to come to the Rift headset, but a wide array of social VR apps have already taken off, fostering vibrant communities of people coming together from around the world to interact as simple yet surprisingly effective avatars, facilitated by high-end VR headsets like the Rift and HTC Vive.
Currently, most of the public's limited interest in VR is centered on where we know the money already is: gaming. But social VR is already beginning to deliver on VR's promise of an "empathy engine," using the medium to connect real people from around the world.
But what does this new universe of social VR look like? I decided to find out.
It's an avatar world
If you tried to explain the internet to someone from the 18th century, and all you had as a visual aid was a painting of a Google results page full of links, you'd have a tough time convincing that person that the painting represented a global network of living information on every topic known to humankind.
That's about how tough it is to describe the groundbreaking events currently unfolding in social VR — YouTube videos of avatars hanging out with each other simply don't translate the full impact of the experience. Name-checking Second Life — the massive multiplayer online experience that launched in 2003 and is actually still around — scratches the surface of it, but the virtual bar has been raised with fully immersive headsets, and the VR universe is something entirely new.
Social VR is already beginning to deliver on VR's promise of an "empathy engine"
In the past two weeks, I've had one-on-one experiences with people from Sweden, China, the UK, Chile, Florida, Atlanta and California — all from the comfort of my New York City apartment using the Rift. Unlike the social networks that most of us are accustomed to, we didn't meet as icons or user names on flat, 2D screens. Instead, our interactions occurred in fully realized three-dimensional spaces, each person represented by 3D avatars allowing individual interactivity with almost the same degree of freedom and expressiveness we're accustomed to in the real world.
Looking down at your virtual hands and then walking over to view your personal avatar in a mirror for the first time is a transformative experience. Gone are the joysticks and keyboard commands; your face and hands are your interface in VR, and even something as simple as looking over your own virtual shoulder (yes, that's possible) pulls you deeper into the immersive experience.
In one VR environment, a handshake with another person's avatar results in a pleasant explosion of pixels, which means you're now friends with that person. Another environment does the same thing with fist bumps, except the action serves as a VIP ticket to a private party in another room.
Currently, the social VR community is a fairly small, tight-knit group of pioneers, much like the early days of the IRC (internet relay chat) that offered a vibrant but mostly under-the-radar social meeting place just before the explosion of the web.
My customized VR avatars in Bigscreen, vTime and AltspaceVR.
IMAGE: BIGSCREEN, VTIME, ALTSPACEVR
After a good deal of VR bar-hopping, I found the most active social communities in four social VR apps: Bigscreen, vTime, AltspaceVR and Rec Room. Bigscreen and Rec Room are both limited to the Vive and the Rift (for now) while AltspaceVR and vTime both work with the aforementioned headsets as well as cheaper options like the Gear VR (vTime also works on Google Daydream View). None of the experiences except vTime touted Cardboard as an option.
Like the concrete-and-steel social clubs of the world, each space had its own distinct look and personality, attracting different types of users and offering varying levels of social intimacy.
What it's like to 'go out' in VR
I met my first group of people in Bigscreen, an environment suited to small gatherings of up to four people in rooms in where users can interact while seated in swank virtual apartments, and watch videos in private movie theaters. The environment also doubles as a great personal workspace, as it easily allows you to work on your computer's desktop from VR (the Vive version lets you type using the SteamVR virtual keyboard, but the best input method for web surfing I found was via voice on Google Chrome). Beyond social and entertainment, Bigscreen also seems perfectly suited to the next phase of telecommuting and virtual presence meetings currently facilitated by tools like Skype.
When you enter Bigscreen you have the option creating rooms and inviting others, or joining rooms in progress (the limit is four people per room, so things get intimate pretty fast). My first Bigscreen meeting paired me with a man and woman from Asia and a man from western Europe. We were all newbies trying to figure out how to use the app so I kicked things off and opened a trailer for us to watch — you guessed it, The Matrix. Predictably, it was a hit, and that broke the ice. Soon, everyone began trading social VR tips and tricks.
It's scary meeting someone in VR for the first time. There's no user name to hide behind. And even though your avatar isn't really your own body, there's a distinct sense that you're exposed.
Nevertheless, it's scary meeting someone in VR for the first time. There's no user name to hide behind. And even though your avatar isn't really your own body, there's a distinct sense that you're exposed to others and must put your best virtual foot forward (much like real life). Conversations are verbal, not typed, so you don't have the luxury of a backspace key or taking your time when you respond. It's a virtual world, but it's real-time.
My next encounter occurred in vTime, where I was transported onto a moving train in which three people from different locations were already holding a conversation. After introducing myself, we all moved to another environment that had us sitting on a satellite orbiting Earth. You can see a screencap of that meetup below, but the static, 2D picture doesn't do justice to the experience — it really felt as though Earth's massive form was moving below us.
Everyone, even the one veteran user (six months deep) among us, seemed a bit giddy sitting atop the world like gods as space detritus floated by, only momentarily interrupting our discussion about the implications of this new, virtual universe. We soon teleporting to a campfire and then to a mountain cliff. Each environment looked and even, to a certain extent, felt like the real thing — only missing details like the wind from the realistic sky or the heat from the crackling fire. It was at this point that it occurred to me that we may never really need the fabled Star Trek transporter H.G. Wells' time machine, because in virtual reality, you can already transport to any place or time with a mere gesture.
In AltspaceVR, things were a lot more active. The rooms were filled with dozens people of all ages and nationalities and temperaments. While the vast majority of my experiences in social VR were friendly and polite, AltspaceVR felt a little more like the real world in that there were a least a few trolls less excited by the new platform and more interested in getting attention.
This was most apparent during an open-mic night at a club users could teleport into. As raucous as a late-night New York City comedy club, it took almost 30 minutes to get roughly 40 people (avatars) to settle down and start the show.
The early crowd begins to gather at an open mic night in AltspaceVR.
After a couple of performers, one guy got on stage and tried out a couple of racist jokes, after which he was promptly booed off stage and the show went on without a hitch. Like the offline world, AltspaceVR has its bad actors, but that authenticity reinforces the feeling of immersion. You feel as though you're in a real club.
"The same thing that makes social presence such a powerful force for positive interactions can also make it a powerful force for harassment."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Rec Room, a social VR space centered around bringing people together to play games that require physical interactions instead of mere joystick skills. It's in Rec Room that I played several games of paintball, bonding with my own team of strangers as we worked together to defeat opposing teams. Later, I dipped into a room for a game of VR charades with several others, which provided just as many laughs as the game does in your living room. However, the experience was somewhat marred by enthusiastic children using their newfound avatar powers to harass those with less experience in the space.
A very young girl, obviously having sensor-tracking issues with her real-world hardware, was stuck with her avatar's body half-lodged in the floor of the room. After she called out for help (her voice actually sounded like she was in pain after a while), a couple of players, also children, tried to help by pulling at her avatar, but that only made things worse by obscuring her view. Virtual bodies can't be hurt, but the episode was disturbing nonetheless.
I wondered about the logical extension of that situation, where a bad actor in VR tries to impede or ruin another user's experience. Last year a woman wrote about her experience of being "groped" in VR, and it's a harrowing tale. I asked the Rec Room people about the very real possibility of harassment in VR:
"Online harassment is a topic we take very seriously here. We really want to make sure Rec Room is a great community for people from all walks of life," says Nick Fajt, the CEO and co-founder of Seattle-based Against Gravity, the developer of Rec Room, during a subsequent meeting we had in VR. "We've found that social VR is something of a double-edged sword. The same thing that makes social presence such a powerful force for positive interactions can also make it a powerful force for harassment … we feel a particular obligation to drive the state of the art forward in preventing and addressing online harassment."
To that end, Rec Room, as well as the other social VR apps I visited, all have various tools devoted to reporting bad behavior, removing disruptive people and discouraging harassment. Although the tools all vary, a common function is the ability to point at a user or look a user up (user names were displayed at all times in each app) and enable a blocking or reporting action.
Meeting above planet Earth in one of vTime's VR rooms.
"Personal space is sacrosanct, whether physical or virtual, and those boundaries take on new significance with a HMD strapped to your face," says Clemens Wangerin, managing director of UK-based vTime. "I'm pleased to say that the clear majority use the service exactly as intended. Those that don't are dealt with swiftly when reported, and can receive temporary or permanent bans."
And while all the services have age limits (usually 13), there are currently no hard measures in place to prevent children from interacting with adult strangers. That situation is mirrored on the web, of course, but made more troubling when a sense of presence is involved via 3D avatars, audio interaction and hand interfaces.
"We pioneered the concept of a 'personal space bubble,' which prevents people from sticking virtual objects into your virtual body, or 'groping' you," says Darshan Shankar, the CEO and founder of Berkeley, CA-based Bigscreen. "Those [unwanted actions] can feel very uncomfortable in VR and a personal space bubble was a simple, clever solution to the problem. Many other social VR apps have now implemented similar controls to excellent results."
A VR smartwatch and control mechanism that you wear on your wrist in Rec Room.
IMAGE: AGAINST GRAVITY
Part of the reason harassment in these early stages of social VR is being given so much attention is due to the lessons learned on the social media web. And although there are no guaranteed methods currently in place to guard against harassment in social VR spaces, after much use, I'm convinced that the aforementioned companies are working earnestly to keep VR from devolving from an empathy engine into an "enmity engine."
Early days for VR meetups
During my first-ever business meeting in VR, Fajt took me on an in-depth tour through some of Rec Room's lesser-known corners as we discussed the future of social VR. Fajt, who spent several years working on the Microsoft HoloLens team, believes augmented reality will eventually become incredibly useful to mainstream consumers, but he's placing his early bet on VR as the path to the next step beyond today's web.
When I asked him why, he echoed the sentiments I've heard frequently in recent months from those studying both platforms: In general, AR is harder than VR, at least in the short-term. Although hits like Pokémon Go and Snapchat Lenses offer amazing imagery to overlay real-world environments, nothing compares to the full immersion available in VR. But Fajt believes this is all transitional, and that within the next decade we'll see tetherless glasses that seamlessly handle the task of delivering both AR and VR content. But in the near term, VR simply packs more punch as a platform.
None of the companies would reveal membership numbers, although Bigscreen, which is still in beta, claims its most passionate users stay in the app for 20 to 30 hours a week. Most estimates place the collective number of mobile and high-end VR headsets sold in 2016 in the single-digit millions.
In terms of revenue, none of the social VR spaces I used, all of which are free to use, had obvious revenue models. Predictably, the focus for these services for now is around building community first and figuring out profit down the road.
Against Gravity CEO Nick Fajt tells me about the future of Rec Room over a game of VR poker.
IMAGE: AGAINST GRAVITY
But unlike the web's early social-networking growth around sites like Friendster, MySpace and later Facebook, the grace period for social VR to develop without intense competition will be extremely short. Facebook's Oculus Rooms, which is currently available in a limited form for Samsung Gear VR users, will roll out in a major way for Oculus Rift later this year. When that happens, anyone withe Rift will be encouraged to link their Facebook accounts — a shift that will prompt VR's nascent user base to choose between these small, pioneering social VR apps and the world's biggest social network.
No, none of these spaces are hyperrealistic simulacras in the tradition of The Matrix. But as Epic Games founder and Unreal Engine pioneer Tim Sweeney demonstrated on stage months ago at Steam Dev Days (the game service's developer conference), we're less than a decade away from realistic human avatars in VR. That change seems destined to deliver on one of the biggest promises of the medium: teleporting, with others, to fully immersive worlds. When that happens, much of the groundwork will have been laid by the VR social networks of today.