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Virtual Reality’s Missing Element: Other People

VR can be the basis of a new communications industry if the technology becomes less insular and isolating.
June 14, 2017
David Brandon Geeting

Unlike most people, I have a virtual-reality headset. I have exactly one friend who also has one. So most of the time I spend in VR, I’m all by myself. I can almost hear the digital tumbleweeds rolling by.

That’s a funny thing about this technology. Although it looks as if it must feel isolating to strap on a headset that shuts out the world around you, it could be great for socializing. When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spent $3 billion to buy the VR headset maker Oculus back in 2014, he pointed to the potential for social interactions as a key reason. And he’s right. Virtual reality can give you a sense of being with others that a FaceTime call on an iPhone will never match. Virtual reality could make it more emotionally fulfilling to connect with far-flung friends and family, or lend a feeling of physical presence to online classes that is impossible to attain otherwise.

But oddly enough, the social network hasn’t made social applications a focal point for the Oculus Rift headset, which launched in 2016. Primarily it’s still meant for playing games and watching short films. In April, Facebook released an app for Oculus Rift called Spaces to let you get together with your Facebook friends in VR. But it’s pretty humdrum. You can take a virtual selfie with your buddies, create a customized avatar based on your Facebook photos, and watch 360° videos or make 3-D doodles with a giant marker. You can interact only with the friends you already have on the social network, so unless your friends happen to have virtual-reality headsets too, you really can’t do much in Spaces but hang out all by yourself. And even if you do meet up with a friend in Spaces, it gets old quickly: you’re forced to stand around a virtual table the whole time. It seems that in order to avoid overwhelming early VR users, Facebook has gone too far in the direction of simplicity.

Recently I found a virtual social place that’s actually fun. It’s a free app for Rift and another high-end headset, HTC’s Vive, called Rec Room. Its virtual world is laid out like a cartoon version of a high school gym where you can play games like paintball and dodgeball, which you control with physical movements in real life. There’s also a big communal lobby called the locker room (for hanging out, not for changing in and out of virtual clothes—you can do that in a private Rec Room dorm room). In the locker room you can meet up with friends or strangers, shoot hoops, or play Ping-Pong.

Rec Room has plenty of flaws, but it nonetheless shows the power of today’s truly immersive virtual-reality technology to promote connections between people in ways that past attempts at virtual socializing—remember Second Life?—could never muster. The interactions with others are largely intuitive; to become friends with people in Rec Room, for instance, you shake their hands, which produces buzzing feedback in the handheld controller. I’ve had a blast spending time in Rec Room with my one other friend who uses VR, who in real life lives across the country. And it’s also the only virtual environment I’ve found that prompts you to connect with people you don’t know in ways that aren’t so awkward you want to rip off your headset.

“Even if you’re just … throwing darts into other people’s faces, you’ve kind of got a reason to be there.”

Although market researcher IDC believes 10 million virtual-reality headsets shipped last year, that number is tiny compared with, say, the smartphone market, where 1.5 billion handsets were shipped in 2016. And I think the technology will struggle to snag more users—and thus to come down in price from at least $800 for a headset and VR-ready PC—unless it becomes more social. It’s not that virtual reality isn’t fun on your own. It’s delightful to get transported somewhere by pulling a headset over your eyes and headphones over your ears. But no matter how entrancing virtual reality is, it’s ultimately a lonely escape if nobody else is around to enjoy it with. If experiences like Rec Room catch on, VR may become the first true post-smartphone social platform.

Structured social

Rec Room, made by a company called Against Gravity, is not very advanced visually. When I pop in to the app, I embody what I think of as Geometric Rachel: an ovoid head, rectangular torso, and mitten-like hands, with glasses and a hairdo that looks like a bob-shaped helmet. But even within the confines of this simple avatar, I have a surprising amount of fun hiding in shipping containers and shooting at opponents (including my VR buddy) in a giant game of capture the flag.

Things reviewed

  • Rec Room

  • Altspace VR

  • High Fidelity

  • Facebook Spaces

One day I connected with Against Gravity cofounder and chief creative officer Cameron Brown for an interview in the app’s locker room. His avatar was decked out in square purple glasses, a black baseball cap, and a white tank top with an orange Rec Room logo—a simple happy face—on the front. His hand suddenly fell to the ground; the app was having network issues, he said. He whisked me away from the clamor of the locker room to a big, empty lounge with a wood floor, a Ping-Pong table, and couches that our legless bodies couldn’t actually sit on. It’s the rare private space in Rec Room, which anyone can use and invite others into. He said some people have taken to using the space for meetings, and there are a conference table and whiteboards in one corner just for that.

Since VR technology is still so new that most of us don’t have lots of friends using it, and interacting with strangers in virtual reality is about as awkward as doing so in real life, Rec Room is using slightly unconventional methods to get you to socialize. It literally forces you into games. Brown calls it “structured social.” If you and a few others enter the gym around the same time to play dodgeball, for instance, Rec Room’s software will automatically sort everyone into teams and an overly chipper, British-accented woman’s voice will suddenly start counting down the seconds until the match begins. Before you can think about it, you’re thrust into a game. “Who enjoys going to a party where you don’t know anybody, and just walking into a room and going, ‘Hi’?” he said.

True enough. Still, Rec Room’s ice-breaking methods can be jarring at first, like the time I suddenly found myself wielding a giant pen in a game of 3-D charades. Like most people, I do prefer to socialize with those whose interests I share, rather than complete strangers, and that’s not necessarily Rec Room’s aim (although you can set up private games with just your friends). Eventually, though, this sink-or-socialize tactic got me to loosen up and enjoy myself rather than stand around trying to work up the nerve to talk to others. “Even if you’re just mucking around in the locker room throwing darts into other people’s faces, you’ve kind of got a reason to be there, and before you know it, half an hour’s gone by,” Brown said.

Mindless fun or not, Rec Room was remarkable for how it gave me a sense of being in a space with other people, especially my friend who is thousands of miles away. We were giddy at being able to communicate and be together in a new way. It was much more enjoyable than Facebook Spaces, where there’s not enough to do, and another social app, AltspaceVR, where there are too many options for socializing, none very entertaining.

Avatar issues

If you’re hanging out in virtual reality, you’re going to need a body, and what this body must look like, or whether it even has to be human, depends on the context. Often, it seems cartoonish human figures are best for staying clear of the uncanny valley, since it’s still difficult to make avatars look just like us. (Probably the most realistic-looking avatar I’ve yet seen belongs to Second Life creator Philip Rosedale in his new social VR app, High Fidelity, and even that one doesn’t look quite like him.)

Regardless of how well designed your avatar is in VR, one way these worlds resemble real life is that your perceived gender shapes the interactions you have. In Rec Room and other socially geared apps, like AltspaceVR and Facebook Spaces, I prefer to make my avatar female—and preferably similar in appearance to me, with brown hair and, when it’s an option, glasses. Being true to your actual identity can make you feel that your virtual self is authentic, but as a female character you’re likely to face behavior that is obnoxious or worse.

I haven’t experienced anything that bad. The worst was when some whiny, mouth-breathing adolescent boy complained that I sucked at a game: admittedly, it pissed me off and hurt my feelings a bit. (To be fair, I was terrible at several of the games.) But Brown acknowledges that harassment can be an issue. He told me of an incident in which the fiancée of a regular Rec Room user tried out the app and found a bunch of other players instantly in her face when she entered the locker room.

Simple tools to counter these behaviors are critical, but like VR itself, they’re still very much in the experimental stage. Rec Room and AltspaceVR let you mute offensive users or build an invisible cushion around your avatar to make bullies disappear if they get too close. Rec Room also lets players vote on whether someone should be kicked out of a game. These tools will have to get more advanced and intuitive.

It could take several years for headset prices to drop and for a range of apps to figure out the interactions we want to have with each other in virtual spaces, making VR so compelling that, like the TV, PC, and smartphone, it becomes something the average person wants to use. Rec Room is not going to be that killer app for many people. But because it’s focused on certain activities and thoughtful about how to promote social interactions, it’s a good model for what’s possible. I hope it can stick around until there are many more people to play with.

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