Awhile back, I pulled my Oculus Rift headset over my face and started walking around a virtual arcade. Inside Pierhead Arcade, you can play skeeball, go bowling, and manipulate a claw machine with Oculus’s special hand-tracking controllers. It was a brand new game, so I shouted my observations every few minutes to my boyfriend, who was sitting behind me on the couch. When I took the headset off about an hour later, I heard my boyfriend snoring lightly from the bedroom. I’d been talking to myself.
Every time I enter VR, there’s something to surprise me: a new game, a new scene, a new trick to make a virtual world feel even more real. It’s full of new experiences that I desperately want to share with other people. But accessing a virtual experience is inherently antisocial: once you strap on a VR headset, you’re cut off from the outside world. The headset blocks your vision; special 3D audio headphones block out sound. You’re alone, regardless of who else is in the room.
But signs point to a shift. If 2016 was the year VR arrived, 2017 is the year developers will start thinking seriously about making VR social. VR is all about immersion — that sense that you’re actually there, in the place to which your senses are transporting you. And adding a social component to a virtual experience — whether that’s interacting with an artificially intelligent character or another person playing the same game — deepens those feelings of immersion. Frank Biocca, a Syracuse University human-computer interaction researcher who authored Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality, says that interacting with someone a player already knows is the most powerful version of the experience. Bringing real connections into VR increases users’ connection to the virtual world, he says, making it feel more emotionally authentic.
For this reason, social gaming is already huge on platforms like Xbox and Playstation. Hop into Halo on an Xbox and you’ll likely opt to play with friends against strangers. Maureen Fan, CEO of VR film studio Baobab Studios, notes that people laugh at movies more in a movie theater than at home. There’s a feedback loop that reinforces our urge to laugh, cry, or groan. Adding a social element amplifies our experiences—and that applies to VR too.
As social apps get more popular the opportunities to connect them to VR become more exciting. Facebook believed in VR enough to buy Oculus back in 2014, with the intent of creating a social experience. “This is really a new communication platform,” Mark Zuckerberg wrote on Facebook to explain the purchase. “By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life.” And last week, ahead of expectations, Facebook delivered its first social experience: Oculus Rooms and Parties. Rooms, which is now available for Gear VR headsets and will become available for Rift in 2017, lets users start a voice chat within virtual reality. Parties lets their avatars hang out in virtual rooms where they can talk, play games and watch movies together. It’s a lot like existing social spaces such as AltspaceVR, with the additional ability to customize avatars’ expressions.
There’s just one problem: most people don’t own a VR headset. I know a few people who use them, but none intimately enough that I want to hang out and watch a movie with them in a private virtual world. It will be years before VR is mature enough to strong-arm everyone you know into owning a VR headset. But multiplayer games are low-hanging fruit for introducing social experiences. When I walked into that arcade, I was given the option to start a room and invite other players. But these are VR’s early days, when most early adapters don’t know other users. So why wasn’t I invited to join a public room, to play skeeball among other players?
A few companies are already thinking this way and building massive multiplayer games for VR, which allow people to log in from anywhere and play alongside one another. In Eve: Valkyrie I joined a vast space battle, firing continuously at enemies as my ship spun so fast I feared I might throw up. I didn’t know my opponents, but just knowing I was firing my ship’s guns at avatars and not unconscious AI added an extra layer of intrigue.
In these early days, public multiplayer experiences should be the default for games, not the exception. And companies are starting to figure this out. A slew of multiplayer VR games are planned for 2017. In Bebylon: Battle Royale, for example, players can fight one another or observe the combat from the stands of a battle arena. Once in the game, you can chat or verbally spar with players. The setup creates more surprising and spontaneous interactions than even the most cleverly created AI character can offer—allowing a game to stay fresh, even if you return again and again.
In the coming year, companies are expanding this principal beyond gaming. Sansar, a platform for building virtual worlds from the company behind Second Life, is expected to launch in 2017 and Second Life’s original creator is creating another rival virtual universe, High Fidelity. In these early days of VR, headset owners need to be brought together around common interests. Maybe that’s exploring Mars, or maybe it’s playing shopkeeper at a virtual store, but if VR is going to be a reliable replacement for Skype, I need a unique experience to convince me to socialize there.
That brings us back to my living room. VR really is compelling — just not compelling enough for everyone I know to drop $1,500 on a headset, controllers and gaming computer. So they come to my apartment and we hang out in my living room taking turns putting on the headset. This is the way most people are making VR social. Like beer pong at a party, it’s a fun spectator sport for about 10 minutes—but then everybody gets bored and turns their attention to something else until it’s their turn.
There is one game company that gets it. Steel Crate Games makes a puzzle game called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, which tasks a headset wearer with defusing a virtual bomb that only they can see. Everyone else in the room has a manual with instructions for defusing the bomb. It’s both infuriating and sidesplitting to watch friends fumble through cutting the right color wire or selecting the right symbol. The game is brilliant because it takes advantage of the social divide inherent in VR headsets. In Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, isolation is a feature, not a bug.
“It’s actually what you end up doing when you do demos anyway,” says Brian Fetter, co-creator of Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. “You have to guide someone through something you can’t quite see, and explain things in a way that they can understand even though they can only hear you.”
Fetter believes there is plenty of room for more games of a similar style. Our TV displays whatever the VR headset wearer is seeing, so when we play puzzle games other people in the room will casually shout out suggestions. Escape-the-room games, for example, could be a nice fit for including the everyone, not just those wearing a device, in a VR experience. Show them something on the TV that the headset wearer can’t see, and make them work together.
VR headset makers and app developers have dual goals for 2017: Connect the people already using VR to one another, and build friend-oriented social networks so compelling that everyone will want a headset. Give people an authentic way to connect around games, movies, and puzzles, and VR’s captivating nature will grow harder to ignore.