Virtual reality is lonely, but it doesn’t have to be

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Virtual reality has transitioned from a sci-fi plot point to a commercially available gadget over the last few years. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of Palmer Luckey and his Oculus Rift headset range, we’ve been given a glimpse of the future, and it’s enough to make everyone who’s tried it think it’s more than just another computer screen.

But virtual reality is often a lonely place. Unlike more traditional forms of entertainment, which let people watch and interact as part of a shared experience, VR cuts the user off from everyone else. Sure, it’s possible to remove an earphone and carry a conversation, but that’s more of a distraction than anything else — the virtual equivalent of talking on a cell phone while driving.

When social media and virtual reality mix

This isolation could be an obstacle for widespread adoption, but there’s been some attempts to overcome it. XsplitCaster can be used to broadcast what you’re seeing onto a second display or indeed an online stream, even if the game itself doesn’t support it. And the game “Say What?” forces one player to pass instructions on to another in virtual reality, creating interaction even though each person is in a separate space.

SayWhat? has players acting out the instructions of friends in the real world.
SayWhat? has players acting out the instructions of friends in the real world.

These attempts only begin to scratch humanity’s social itch in virtual spaces, however. When Facebook purchased Oculus in early 2014, many gamers threw up their hands in disgust, suggesting Luckey was a sellout and that VR would become just an extension of the social network before long. That may one day be true, but I wonder if the purchase isn’t such a bad thing. Facebook seems to be in prime position to overcome VR’s social problem.

Virtual reality could let you chat with someone thousands of miles away as if he or she was your next-door neighbor.

Think about it. If video conferencing with your friend on the other side of the world is useful now, imagine a future where you’ll be able to both see each other in virtual reality and interact in a space built entirely to your tastes. Maybe you and that friend can play the sports you always enjoyed playing together as children, or go for a walk on an alien moon. Virtual reality could let you chat with someone thousands of miles away as if he or she was your next-door neighbor.

If that sounds far fetched, it shouldn’t, as versions of social VR platforms are already in development. As early as the Oculus Rift DK1’s release, there was the Riftmax cinema, which ran multi-player servers for people to watch movies and videos together from within a virtual multiplex. Interactions were limited and your on-screen entertainment was at the whim of the server’s admin, but it was an exciting look at what the future could hold.

The newest kid on the social VR block is Convrge, which takes the concept of hanging out in virtual reality to a whole new level. At its core it’s a simple, polygon heavy world, with basic graphics that allow even the weakest of systems to output a solid 75 frames per second, making it buttery smooth and nausea free. On top of that, the developers have made it so that your avatar – which is chosen from a cast of heads including Darth Vader and a Lego man – can use voice chat with the press of a button. This, combined with the fact that your head bobs around as your real life one does, makes this the most life-like communication platform in virtual reality right now. It’s quite a transformative experience.

Communities in virtual space

Often players 'Convrge' around a particular video or conference.
Often players ‘Convrge’ around a particular video or conference.

One on one chats are certainly interesting in Convrge, but the group aspects are most exciting. Aside from random people occasionally meeting up in the cosy virtual woodland, there are larger meet-ups at specific times. On Sundays, for example, there’s a Game of Thrones after-episode party, that gives people a space in VR to talk about the show. There’s also a regular movie night, which thanks to the program’s inclusion of a huge floating screen, means everyone can watch films together from the comfort of their own home. For those that prefer something serious, there are occasional panels with industry developers from companies like Leap Motion.

And this is just the tip of the iceberg. We are still months away from a full commercial VR hardware release from Oculus or its competitors, and the best experiences and games won’t start appearing until after that. If what we’re see so far is any indication of the direction the scene is going, the future of social VR looks very bright.

Embracing VR doesn’t mean forgetting each other

Imagine a world where virtual reality is part of everyday life. The social interactions it could bring will be nearly limitless. Facebook chat could have a VR function which lets you put on your headset and hang out with a friend. Maybe you’ll revisit Convrge as a bit of a throwback to the early days and watch a film by the campfire, before warping to the UltraHD home arcade that you and your friends customized just to your tastes.

Do you really need to commute into the city when you and your colleagues could instead operate a virtual office?

And that’s just entertainment. Imagine how this might impact your work. Do you really need to commute into the city when you and your colleagues could instead operate a virtual office? Your desk and its many applications could be mirrored to your home PC, whereby you simply put on your headset and you’re at work ready to go. All your co-workers are there, but none of you need to bother putting on pants if you don’t want. Oh, and your virtual office is on the moon, because why not?

VR has the potential to do many things, from making us feel a part of a virtual world for the first time, to giving us guided tours of historical landmarks. But it’s the future social applications of the medium which are most exciting and thanks to Facebook’s purchase of Oculus, and they should receive the focus they deserve.

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