On Wednesday, when Oculus kicked off its fifth annual conference for virtual-reality developers in a convention center in San Jose, California, I had a front-row seat.
In reality, I was about 50 miles away from the action, sitting on my couch. But I was wearing an Oculus Go—the company’s lower-end, self-contained headset—that let me “attend” the event virtually through the Oculus Venues app. Within my headset, it looked as if I was in a darkened theater, surrounded by a bevy of other virtual attendees, all of us watching Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook (Oculus’s parent company), and other executives talk up their latest VR developments.
Oculus has long promised that VR will bring people together, not isolate them. And yet the technology has not taken off in a meaningful way, especially for social interactions. Odds are, most of your friends don’t have headsets, so it’s hard to even find people to hang out with in VR. With rare exceptions, there aren’t many apps that are good at making you feel together when you may be far apart.
But events, concerts, or movies can provide a different kind of social interaction that could be easier for virtual reality to imitate. Watching this event from the privacy of my living room, an Oculus Go controller in one hand and a fistful of VR-safe snacks (gummy bears and popcorn) in the other, was an experiment: could I get the same sense of excitement and social interaction that I’d normally get at one of these big tech events, without even having to go there? Since staying at home would save me about four hours of driving in Bay Area traffic, I hoped the answer would be yes.
There were two options to watch the event in VR: in a private setting or surrounded by avatars representing other people watching through their own VR devices. I chose the latter option and created an avatar with green hair and a green mustache. The VR event was bustling at first, with a few dozen mostly male-looking cartoonish head-and-torso avatars floating just above their virtual seats, each sporting a single hand (for now, the app only works with Oculus Go and Samsung’s Gear VR, and both of those headsets support single-handed controls). Everyone had some sort of glasses on; Oculus is working on increasingly realistic-looking avatars that can blink and move their mouths, but it hasn’t yet rolled that out.
One by one, the announcements unfolded, most notable among them the reveal of a headset called Oculus Quest. Slated to be released next spring with a set of hand controls for $399, Quest is meant to be a standalone version of the company’s existing Rift headset (that one offers a high-end virtual-reality experience but requires separate sensors and tethering to a powerful PC, and the latter encumbrance can make it both pricey and annoying to use).
Though the resolution of Zuckerberg and the other keynote speakers wasn’t nearly as good as it is in real life, it was decent. The video streamed impressively well—I only noticed one hitch in over an hour and a half—and I liked being so close to the action. It was definitely an improvement over watching the keynote on a laptop or television, and I felt closer to the speakers physically than I typically do on a live stream.
I also soon realized I was sitting (or hovering, more accurately) right near an online buddy—another journalist who had decided to cover the event in VR as well. It was one of the few times I’ve seen someone familiar in a virtual crowd, and after I waved my virtual hand to say hi, we had a nice, quick chat.
But it soon became hard to hear what was happening on stage because the virtual crowd around me was full of heavy breathing, throat clearing, and random comments. I could mute individual people in the crowd, but it was impossible to know who was talking at any given time—there was no in-VR indicator and, again, no mouth movements. Everyone sounded really loud, and there didn’t seem to be any way to whisper to the person next to you as you would in real life.
I started toggling back and forth between the private viewing option and the public one, but every time I did I ended up in a new seat. After a while I just turned down the volume on the crowd comments so I could concentrate.
And when I did, I heard that the crowd in San Jose was going to be able to try out the new Quest headset right after the presentation. Which helped me realize one of the big drawbacks of attending an event in VR: you can’t test out any new hardware.
I wasn’t the only one who felt disappointed. “I wish I could be there to try the technology,” I heard someone near me say.
“Can’t we try it in VR?” asked somebody else.
Another problem? Battery life. After an hour or so, my headset alerted me that its battery was about to die. I don’t have a long cord, though, so in order to watch the rest of the event I had to sit on the floor two feet from an outlet (and I couldn’t move too much, lest I pull the plug from the wall).
Worse, for me, was the eyestrain and head fatigue. I don’t usually spend more than 20 minutes or so in VR at a time, so the 90-minute keynote presentation felt like a marathon. My head and eyes started to ache about 30 minutes in, and I had to keep taking tiny breaks, lifting up the headset to let in the real world.
When the event finally ended I got a chance to have a real conversation with some of the people who had sat in the theater with me virtually. One of them, who in VR wore red glasses that looked like Geordi La Forge’s visor but in the real world is a retired Texan named Howard Warren, was thrilled by the experience.
Warren told me he bought his Oculus Go headset less than a week ago as a way to virtually travel. In his daily life, he uses a wheelchair and is on dialysis, which limits his mobility. This was his second big VR event after going to a screening of a Twilight movie the other evening, and he thinks it’s a cool way to get together.
“Being able to go places virtually is a major thing for me,” he said.
It could be a major thing for everyone, eventually. It’s possible that Quest will bring this longtime industry goal within reach by making it cheaper and easier to get lost in virtual reality.
“We’re getting closer and closer to being able to step between physical and digital worlds,” Zuckerberg said during his keynote speech. But to me that step still feels just out of reach.
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