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Intelligent Machines

A Startup’s Plans for a New Social Reality

AltspaceVR is building virtual hangouts that it hopes you’ll use to watch a movie with friends or play a game of life-size chess.

Virtual reality could be used for all kinds of activities, from virtual sightseeing to science-lab dissections.

We know what social networks are like on the Web and in apps, but what will they be like in virtual reality? While Facebook, the owner of Oculus VR, is surely pondering this behind the scenes, a startup called AltspaceVR is already offering a few clues about how we may connect with each other in a simulated world.

In AltspaceVR’s virtual spaces, avatars can mimic your actual head, arm, and hand movements with the use of an Oculus DK2 headset and Microsoft’s Kinect.

AltspaceVR is building social virtual environments, ranging from a Japanese-style garden to an amphitheater to a dark, sleek lounge. The hope is that headset-wearing users will hang out together in these places in the form of avatars that display real body language thanks to motion sensors, and do things like watching movies, playing games, or shopping together using a shared virtual Web browser. AltspaceVR also hopes developers will use the software development kit it’s building to bring all kinds of applications—a giant chess game, for instance, or a 3-D model viewer—to its social, virtual world.

Virtual-reality technologies aren’t yet consumer ready, but they’re coming. Oculus VR, Sony, HTC, and others are working on headsets; and the HTC Vive is planned for release late this year. Devices aimed at developers are already on the market—one example is the Gear VR, a $199 virtual-reality headset developed by Oculus VR and Samsung that uses a Samsung smartphone as the display.

AltspaceVR is among a growing number of companies trying to figure out what, exactly, we’ll do with these devices when they get here. Facebook, which owns Oculus VR, said in March that virtual reality gaming will be coming this year, while Philip Rosedale, the creator of the online virtual world Second Life, is building a virtual-reality universe called High Fidelity (see “The Quest to Put More Reality in Virtual Reality”).

AltspaceVR users can do things like play chess on a virtual chessboard, shown here in a virtual outdoor garden.

AltspaceVR CEO and founder  Eric Romo wants to develop ways for people who are physically far apart to interact that are more engaging than, say, video chatting or talking on the phone.  “That nonverbal part of communication is really lost in any other medium other than being together, and that’s something we feel can be replicated to a great extent in virtual reality,” Romo says.

So far, AltspaceVR has been testing out its virtual experience during weekend sessions with groups of users, holding events like a House of Cards marathon night and a Super Bowl viewing party within its virtual rooms. Romo hopes to make AltspaceVR available through an open “beta” test in the next couple months, along with its SDK. The company aims to have a consumer product available at the time of the launch of the HTC Vive; so far, it has raised about $5.5 million in funding from investors including Google Ventures to help it down this path.

In its Redwood City, California office, developer relations head Bruce Wooden guided me through several of the virtual spaces AltspaceVR has already built, both of us floating above the ground as simple, mostly white robot avatars that looked somewhat similar to EVE from the animated movie WALL-E. I wore headphones with an attached microphone and an Oculus DK2 headset . A Leap Motion sensor affixed to the front of the DK2 showed my hand and finger motions in the AltspaceVR world, and a plain old computer mouse gave me some simple controls (I could inch forward, turn, and select things in virtual space—but couldn’t back up).

A view of an AltspaceVR room from an avatar’s point of view.

The Oculus DK2 tracks head position, so every time Bruce nodded or cocked his head to the side, I’d see his virtual head move. And while my demo avatar had only hands, his had arms and hands that were tracked with a Kinect motion-sensor. His avatar’s upper-body motions, combined with his voice, gave virtual Bruce a sense of personality despite the fact that this legless, expressionless pile of pixels looked nothing like the real Bruce. It was strange, but as the minutes ticked by, the unreality started to fade away and I got used to interacting with him this way.

We started out in a bright, sparse, wood-paneled room with tidal-wave paintings on the walls. Once I had figured out navigation a bit, Wooden took me to several more spaces, like a Japanese garden-type space located on the edge of what appeared to be a calm lake.

AltspaceVR amplifies the reality of its digital creations by automatically adjusting the sound in its virtual spaces to correspond with your avatar’s distance from others’ and any content that might be playing aloud.

A small color-changing dot that I controlled with the mouse let me know where the boundaries of the virtual rooms were, and clicking on a little plus sign near the bottom of my field of view opened up a sort of control panel with an array of options in front of me that only I could see.

As intriguing as the experience was, it’s unclear how compelling it would be as a way of interacting socially. AltspaceVR still has to figure out how avatars will interact with these virtual spaces and with each other. It also seems like a lot of effort to go through just to watch a video with a distant friend.

Jeremy Bailenson, head of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, says that while that video games and films are thought of as the main applications for virtual reality, simply communicating with others could turn out to be important. Communicating via avatars could become more effective than by talking via video chat or even face-to-face, he says, as software could help us do things like tailor our appearances and attentiveness to whomever we’re speaking with. To make social interactions really effective in digital spaces, though, sensors will need to track facial expressions and body movements well enough to render them realistically, he says.

For now, AltspaceVR is focused intently on inspiring developers who will come up with new uses for its social environments. “We think that will allow people to say, ‘These use cases don’t resonate with me, but maybe this other one does, and I’ll create it,’” Romo says. 

Hear more about virtual reality from the experts at the EmTech Digital Conference, March 26-27, 2018 in San Francisco.

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