Do you watch a VR film or play it? ‘Life of Us’ makes it hard to tell

“You have to experience virtual reality to truly appreciate it.” It’s a common refrain, but that’s not always true. Some VR experiences can captivate those watching from outside a virtual reality headset. Some, like Within’s Life of Us, can catch the eye of just about anyone who walks by.

At Unity’s Vision VR summit in May, Life of Us easily drew the biggest crowd of all the demos on the show floor. You could see it through the exit, and that tiny glimpse provided the inspiration to walk to the entrance at the hall’s opposite end and weave past the other booths to watch attendees playing Life of Us up close.

It’s part game, part interactive film

Life of Us is somewhere between a multiplayer game and an interactive short film. Its co-creator, Within co-founder and CTO Aaron Koblin, calls it a multi-user experience. Beginning as a single-cell organism and charging through the stages of life’s evolution, Life of Us uses blocky graphics and a thumping soundtrack by Pharrell Williams to span millennia. It’s also totally a game about high-fiving your gorilla buddies and blowing bubbles at each other.

“We’d just have boxes for hands and heads and, with voice, you could see the humanity pouring through.”

This is all so new, Koblin said, that there are few existing rules for what a thing needs to be. At its core, though, Life of Us is about how humans are social creatures. “I just think multi-user content is going to be core to the future of VR experiences,” Koblin said. “You can have amazing solitary experiences, but those things that are most remembered and most impactful to your life are the things you share with family and friends and others. ”

“We crave connection and interaction with others,” he continued. “I think in VR and AR you have the ability to take that a step further and have an even more meaningful connection.”

Multiplayer virtual reality games are still new — like all VR — but they’re also a hot topic right now. At the Unity Vision summit a panel of developers that included the makers of multiplayer VR games Eagle Flight (Ubisoft), QuiVr (Blueteak), and Racket NX (One Hamsa) discussed the challenges of making multiplayer work in VR, from giving players something to do while they wait for one another in lobbies to minimizing the potential for abusive interactions.

The medium is the message

Koblin and Within’s other founder, Chris Milk, has faced all these challenges and more. Within is a VR technology and content company with its own app, also called ‘Within,’ where its various experiences are available. Before any other part of Life of Us was in place, Koblin and Milk developed a primitive prototype where two players wearing VR headsets could simply speak with, move and see one another in a virtual space.

How ‘Life of Us’ is Evolving the Idea of Multiplayer in VR city papers

“We’d just have grey boxes for hands and heads and even just that, with voice, you could see the humanity pouring through, and it felt like he was there in the room with me,” Koblin said. “There’s a really powerful opportunity, and especially when that’s paired with creativity and imagination. It’s not just sticking two people in a room — it’s sticking two people on another planet, or in a dream, or in a specifically crafted story. I think that’s what really excites me, is the opportunity to view social as a medium itself.”

Throughout the history of entertainment, he said, social interactions have been constructed around that entertainment instead of as a part of it — like going to the movies or a concert with friends. Video games have changed that, and VR will evolve digital social interactions even further, he believes. “In VR you have a different opportunity to look at that interaction and get people to interact with each other in a different kind of way,” Koblin said. “That’s one of the things that excites us so much about this medium. And I think it’s one of those things that will take it to the next level.”

It culminates in a laser-powered robot dance party straight out of a Daft Punk music video

As you evolve into a tadpole, a dinosaur, a gorilla, a human, and beyond in Life of Us, your interactions with your fellow player become more complex in tandem with the creatures you’re embodying. You go from blowing bubbles at one another to high-fiving and swiping baby monkeys off one another’s backs, culminating in a laser-powered robot dance party out of a Daft Punk music video. You can chat, scream, and joke with one another all the while, laughing as your voices descend from high-pitched squeaks, to grunts, to normal human speech, to robotic intonations. These interactions are inherently limited, but if anything that makes them feel more meaningful. And the degrees to which players would be able to interact is something the developers thought about extensively.

“It’s a really different experience based on if you go in with somebody you know or if you go in with somebody you’re meeting for the first time,” Koblin said. Life of Us will launch first in IMAX VR centers, then arrive in the official Within app, where it will be available to anyone who has a VR headset. They haven’t yet worked out the exact details for how players will connect, although there will likely be some form of matchmaking or other social tools to help players hook up. That possibility — for strangers to experience Life of Us together — presents its own challenges. “You want the right kind of interactions,” Koblin said.

“We spent a fair amount of time thinking about how can we encourage moments of discovery and fun, things like blowing bubbles and popping your friend’s bubbles, and having monkeys that jump on both of you and you can grab the monkey off your friend’s back,” he continued. “Should you be able to slap your friend upside the face? And how far does that go and where do you step in?”

In other words, if a tree falls in a virtual forest, should a player be able to teabag it?

Splitting realities

“In reality everybody experiences the same reality, but in virtual reality that doesn’t have to be the case,” Koblin mused. “There’s interesting questions to be had there around splitting realities and what that means, and is that fair? Is that right to do? We haven’t gone very far down that path, but I find it to be an interesting topic.”

How ‘Life of Us’ is Evolving the Idea of Multiplayer in VR microscopic organism

At Unity’s Vision summit, Within demoed Life of Us with two players. They’ve tested with six or more players, which Koblin said can get crowded. At the Sundance Film Festival, they had four users at a time, with two in one room and two in another. That created its own unique relationships, since friends would usually go in as partners and wind up playing and interacting with two others they didn’t know. Koblin even teased some future projects that he said will involve even more simultaneous users, though he didn’t offer any hints to what those will be.

What’s certain is that multiplayer and multi-user experiences are going to be an important facet of VR going forward. Because what good are millions of years of evolution if you can’t share them?