We are all very excited about virtual reality. It’s an amazing experience backed by amazing technology. But when the excitement has died down and everyone is used to VR, what are we actually meant to use it for?
Of course, VR gaming is the application everyone thinks of first. It’s also likely to be around for as long as VR. The gaming industry is so big that even relatively niche parts of it can survive with relative ease. At the moment VR gaming may not be mainstream, but it certainly isn’t niche either. The main problem with VR gaming being the main industry supporting VR is the expense inherent to VR gaming systems. Even the low-end of AAA VR is pretty pricey; the Sony PSVR costs about as much as a PS4 console, which means that most only the small fringe of truly hardcore gamers is going to invest in VR. As VR hardware costs go down this might change. As I write this, however, only one in sixty PS4 owners have a PSVR. If we look at PC VR, the vast majority of gaming PC owners don’t have a machine capable of handling VR. Of those, it’s again an even smaller subset who have HMDs.
If not gaming, then what? Virtual reality has some excellent educational and training applications. In fact, I personally find the educational potential of VR to be one of its most exciting possibilities. Education is a huge industry, worth billions, but it will be a while before VR devices can scale in a cost-efficient way to broadly apply to learning. For now, science fields and industries that benefit from hands-on experiential training are pouncing on VR, but we are a long way from every student packing an HMD in their kit.
Productivity is another intriguing possibility for virtual reality. One of my favorite Oculus apps is a virtual desktop program I found on Steam. Basically, it puts you in a 3D room with your choice of virtual monitors. Big ones, small ones – there’s quite a bit of flexibility.
For someone like me who doesn’t have to look at the keyboard to type, it provides a focused work space that’s also quiet and, above all, private. The problem here is not so much VR, but its cousin AR. I really believe that physical screens are going the way of the dodo in future, but it will be AR that makes that happen, and not VR.
There is, however, one area of VR that is set to be its most popular segment. Billions have been spent on it already and things haven’t even started yet. Social VR might just be the killer app that VR needs to become mainstream.
What is Social VR?
Just like social media, social VR includes VR experiences that are explicitly designed to facilitate people interacting with each other. This could be virtual chat rooms, parties, community games, and anything else you can think of.
Think of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and chat programs like Hangouts or Skype – the same uses, but translated into a VR environment. The industry believes strongly in the social appeal of VR versus chatting via text or video. So much so that social media giant Facebook bought out Oculus for between two and three billion dollars, depending on who you ask. That’s a huge endorsement of the technology as a new way for people to get connected. But why do they care so much?
Don’t You Need Somebody To Love?
That’s the way that Jefferson Airplane put it, back in the day. It’s true, we do all need someone to love. Human beings all have a need for social interaction. It’s our monkey troupe ancestry that drives that need for contact and interaction. We like to stick our noses in each other’s business. People are always dynamically forming groups and building intricate social hierarchies.
We communicate on multiple levels at the same time. Spoken language, as complex as it is, only makes up a fraction of the total communication bandwidth of in-person communication. Body language, vocal tone, facial expressions, and other physical aspects of communication all intersect to generate the total channel of information we send over to the other person in the conversation.
In the early days of telecommunication, that was stripped down to the bare minimum. Telegrams were short, terse text messages.
Tell John STOP
Grandma sick STOP
Come quick STOP
It’s not exactly a flowery speech, but being able to send those (expensive!) words clear across the country in minutes was a revolution. Then came telephones, where you could hear the other person’s voice; hear emotion and feel much closer to them.
Digital communication over the internet also started off as being text-based. With internet relay chat (IRC) we could talk to anyone in the world, as long as it was text. The popularity of text chat also shows up those limits of communication.
It’s very difficult to convey sarcasm in text for, for example. So people have begun to invent new text elements that do the job. For example, you may follow a sarcastic comment with “/s” so that everyone knows you aren’t serious. It’s also why we use emojis, those little happy or sad faces. They started as cheeky repurposing of ASCII symbols, but now with modern smartphones we have elaborate emojis that can even be animated.
Video chat programs like Skype have brought the face and voice together. It’s much more like really sitting across from the person you are speaking to. Just 10 years ago this was a Sci-Fi concept. I still remember how blown away I was by my first video call. Now I Skype with people on a daily basis like it’s nothing.
I Need My Space
None of these communication methods really make it feel as if the other person is sharing the same space with you. A feeling of presence is what’s been missing with our telecommunication methods from the very beginning. No matter how sharp the picture, how clear the audio, or how short the latency, it always feels like there is a large distance between you and everyone else in the conversation. When you hang out on Facebook with your pals, it doesn’t feel as good as sharing a couch and watching a movie together. In social VR applications your friends are there. They may be represented by avatars, but if done well it can feel like you really are hanging out together.
In a world where people experience the paradox of being connected, but feel socially isolated, social VR is set to explode in popularity.
Getting in on the Action
That’s the theory, but how long before we can actually try it? The good news is if you have a smartphone and a mobile HMD you can try social VR right now. Many of these programs don’t even require the HMD. It’s a concession to the many mobile users who may not have VR HMDs yet. You can still traverse the virtual social scene using just your phone.
Here are some of the most prominent social VR apps that are either coming soon in beta or already available for play. In general these are usually free (ad-supported) and, as long as you have a fairly modern phone, should run pretty well.
Facebook Spaces (Beta)
Facebook Spaces is a key part of the plan that started with the purchase of Oculus. Zuckerberg and friends clearly see the Facebookites of the future lounging around its Spaces virtual world. The other part of the puzzle is their Oculus Go headset – a standalone VR headset announced mid-2017 that costs only $200. It doesn’t need a phone or computer, but just exists as a standalone mobile VR solution. That gives Facebook a platform both in the hardware and software sense.
Spaces lets those without VR gear participate with those who are wearing a headset. You can start a live broadcast in VR and others will be able to watch it on tablets or phones. Conversely, you can receive Facebook Messenger video calls in VR, with the feed appearing as a floating screen. Spaces also lets people who are hanging out together in VR call up and discuss the media on their Facebook account. So you could have a chat about the photos and videos that have been accumulating over the years.
In a stroke of pure genius, you can also create new pictures in the VR world with selfies of your avatars doing various activities in the VR world. Spaces also includes activities where you can create VR media – you can collaboratively draw 3D objects in the shared space and generally mess about with your buddies.
One thing that has to be noted about Facebook Spaces is that it currently only runs on the Oculus Rift and requires the Touch Controllers. So this is not something everyone can just jump into right now.
AltSpace VR is probably one of the best-known social VR applications out there. The company went through a rough financial patch in 2017 and went as far as announcing that it would be closing down, but in the nick of time good old Microsoft swooped in with its massive vault of cash and bought them. It’s a good thing too, because it would be a real pity to lose one of the best-put-together social VR apps today.
AltSpace is available on quite a few HMDs, although, sadly, the Google Cardboard is not one of them. If you have Google Daydream, Htc Vive, Oculus Rift, and Gear VR you can hop right into the AltSpace world right now. If you don’t have any of those, then you can still try it out using “2D mode” on your phone. AltSpace is an intuitive and comfortable experience. The spaces are nice to be in and it’s easy to just walk around and chat with people who are hanging around. Altspace is at the top of my list as a recommendation for people to try.
Oculus Rooms is another Gear VR application and is much as you’d expect, based on the name. It provides a social space where you can hang out with other people. It’s possible to do all sorts of shared activities, such as watching films together or playing games. It also acts as a sort of lobby for other multiplayer Gear VR apps, where you can decide what to play together and then launch the software from there.
There’s a fair bit of personalization in Rooms. You can decorate and style your room to your satisfaction before inviting anyone over. That’s quite a cool feature. Apps such as AltSpace just let you hang out in a premade space, so it always feels public. Rooms is designed in such a way that it feels like inviting people to your home. For that reason I think it is quite special. It also helps that it is one of the best looking social VR apps on mobile!
Before all this social VR malarkey, there was Second Life. If you have somehow never heard of Second Life, it’s a shared 3D virtual world that people visit using their plain old computers. Second Life is still running to this very day and has become popular as a virtual space to do everything from hang out with people to doing product launches or giving lectures.
The times are moving on, though, and the people behind Second Life, Linden Labs, are ready for a modern stab at social virtual reality. That’s coming in the form of “Sansar”, a new high-end social VR platform for which Linden has huge plans. Sansar is about community-driven social VR creations. It’s meant to be a virtual space where Linden provides the tools, and the public makes stuff with it. They will let you import assets from most of the major 3D modeling packages and straight up sell assets in an online store. Sansar is also going to provide a way for people to monetize their content, much in the same way that people earn a living making content for YouTube.
The Dark Side of Social VR
Social VR looks like it really could be the next big thing that makes VR a permanent fixture in daily life, but that doesn’t mean it will all be good news. “Normal” social media has already been incredibly disruptive to society. Facebook has been implicated in certain types of depression, as one example. It turns out that people are very careful to curate how they portray themselves on social media. They only show the good things that are happening. Consequently it looks as if everyone in your social circle is living a much better life than you. After all, YOU know about all the not-so-nice things that happen in your life. They happen to everyone, but Facebook facilitates the creation of false realities. The end result is that people feel worse about themselves.
There’s also the specter of cyber bullying. Driven by anonymity and the fact that a significant percentage of the population is always going to be made up of, well, douchebags, there’s no reason to think that we won’t see it in VR. People can already feel severely victimized just with text and pictures; imagine what will happen when you can also feel the presence of a cyber bully. It’s not as if social media companies like Facebook are not aware of this issue, but I still haven’t really seen how they’ll address it effectively.
Apart from that, we might also see people develop an unhealthy obsession with social VR. It happens all the time, whether it’s TV, video games, or even books. Some will take it to unhealthy extremes.
Let’s not get mired in negativity, however. The internet might be the poster-child for technological loneliness, but through VR we might be able to bring back a true sense of community.
I remember the times I spent on fan forums when I was a teen. We organized real life meetups whenever we could, but even just a text-based forum was already an amazing way to find your people and spend time with them. A presence-inducing VR system would have transformed that experience and I, for one, am glad that we are the generation that gets to experience this technology first.