Exhausted by wedding party politics? Digital matrimony may be the solution.
Anyone who has planned a wedding knows the effort involved. Choosing a venue, whittling down the guestlist, writing vows, picking a colour scheme … the to-do list goes on. Remarkably, for Cardiff couple Martin Shervington and Elisa Evans, who are holding their ceremony in virtual reality in May, the list looks much the same – that is, if you don’t count the two robot avatars they’ve chosen to represent themselves as they say their vows, one pink and one blue.
The wedding will take place at a virtual nightclub called the Spire, complete with a red mottled sky and lava lake. Shervington and Evans have invited 150 of their friends and family to attend – many of whom wouldn’t have been able to make it to a real-life wedding in Cardiff.
More and more couples are hiring companies to record their big day using 360-degree video, but a ceremony in virtual reality has only happened once before. In 1994, a San Francisco couple, Monika and Hugh Jo, were married on the island of Atlantis. The software required reportedly would have cost $1m (£820,000), but was covered by the VR company Monika worked for, CyberMind.
Hosting Shervington and Evans’s ceremony is San Francisco-based social VR platform AltspaceVR. Founder Eric Romo says the idea of a virtual reality wedding did not come as a surprise to him: “I thought it was perfect. This is exactly [...] the sort of thing we think is a really good use of the technology. What we’re trying to do is bring people together and make them feel connected in a way that we can’t on a phone call or video chat.”
The virtual and augmented reality market has grown substantially since 2010, when American teenager Palmer Luckey created the first VR headset prototype, which evolved into the Oculus Rift. Two years later, Mark Zuckerberg bought the company for $2bn. Sony, Playstation and Samsung have all brought out their own headsets since. But the majority of VR’s fans and product developers have come from the gaming sector.
Romo is an exception. A mechanical engineer by trade, he was one of the first employees at SpaceX – the private firm that recently announced it is committed to sending two citizens to the moon in 2018 – before leaving to study an MBA at Stanford University. He later started his own solar technology company in 2006.
“That was an interesting journey for me,” he says. “[The business] went from two guys and a white board trying to figure out what they might want to do with solar energy, to raising $120m in venture capital, having 100 employees and manufacturing operations in China.”
He wound up the business in 2012 after “everybody except the Chinese manufacturers went out of business,” an experience that he admits “was less fun”. But it was in the downturn of 2010–11 that his interest was piqued by virtual reality technologies and he started reading up on it in his spare time.
“The idea of connecting in virtual spaces has been around as long as people have been working on computers, basically,” Romo says. “We don’t believe you’re going to turn people who aren’t interested in games into gamers because of VR. But the idea that I can connect with my friends and family all over the world, in a deeper way [than previously possible], we think that resonates with everybody.”
Eric Romo, founder of AltspaceVR says social virtual reality has endless potential. Photograph: Erin Ashford
VR technology is already being trialled by healthcare professionals to treat conditions such as Alzheimer’s; Munich-based startup Icaros is attempting to revolutionise the fitness industry; and experts are exploring VR’s potential to train workers in industries where accidents are common, such as the NHS, aviation and the military. On a more basic level, Romo holds weekly meetings in VR and has found it a particularly useful medium when there are multiple people speaking.
“With VR, like in real life, you have the ability to make eye contact, to gesture, the ability to point at something, or to turn and look at the person who’s speaking. Those things that are really subtle and simple, and that just happen when you’re together.
“On a phone or video call, all we can do is talk. I can’t hand you something [as I can in VR]. If you think about how you connect with someone in real life, often there are physical objects or media that facilitates your communication.”
Despite the growing fascination with the industry, the number of users is still low – an estimated 43m worldwide – and sales of virtual reality headsets in 2016 were far lower than anticipated. Playstation VR, for example, was expected to sell 2.6m units but dropped this to 750,000.
Consultants Digi-Capital had originally anticipated that the augmented and virtual reality sector would reach $150bn by 2020 (with VR accounting for $30bn of that), but in January 2017 downgraded its forecast to $108bn by 2021 (VR accounting for $25bn).
Romo won’t disclose how many users AltspaceVR has but says they cover 150 countries. His figures show participants are typically engaged for 15–20 minutes on mobile devices compared with an average of just three to four minutes on non-social VR platforms. He believes that the restrictive nature of the available hardware – particularly the need for a high-powered desktop to run the programmes – has held back the widespread adoption of the technology.
Beyond weddings, AltspaceVR has been involved with some interesting initiatives – it’s hosted an international film festival, held concerts and art shows in VR, and a comedy show with comedian Reggie Watts and actor Justin Roiland. Events are currently free but Romo sees the potential for organisers to charge in the future. AltspaceVR’s Frontrow technology makes it seem as though there are only around 30 people there, even if there are a thousand in attendance, so everyone can get close to the performers.
So what does the future hold for VR? Will we all be getting married, holding business meetings and watching entertainment together in a virtual space? Romo won’t be drawn into making predictions.
“People who tend to work in this space tend to come with a lot of sci-fi baggage. They’ve read all these sci-fi novels and have this vision they’ve been dreaming about for the last 30 years of what virtual reality should be that guides their product design and their idea of what is going to be fulfilling for people.”
A better approach, suggests Romo, is trial and error. “The right way to find out is to test and experiment and get people using it. I’m most proud of our passion for experimentation – getting things in front of people as quickly as possible and then finding out if it’s good. We’re often really surprised at what good looks like.”