During the “Women Lead VR” panel at the annual Game Developer’s Conference in March 2016, executive producer Christine Cattano of Framestone made a bold assertion on the topic of social experiences in VR. “It has to be social to be successful,” she said to resounding nods from her panelmates and the audience in attendance.
Among the countless demos of various VR experiences, there has always been one common ground: the player is nearly always alone in their newly 360-degree-inhibited world. Fortunately, to challenge the onslaught of isolating experiences and fulfill the social needs of virtual reality, creators are aiming to make VR a more communally-ventured space.
Floating in the sparse sphere of social VR is the communication-focused, cross-platform AltspaceVR. AltspaceVR combines phone calls, minigames, and miscellaneous social activities—like visiting a virtual art gallery—into one seamless cluster. “There’s lots of things we can do when we get together with friends, family, or colleagues that […] you really can’t do in most online communication mediums,” said Eric Romo, founder and CEO of AltspaceVR. Whether it’s playing cards or simply going out to a movie, VR offers a mirror to our everyday activities that wouldn’t otherwise be possible—at least socially—in a virtual space.
“Somewhere in the back of your brain, subconsciously, is hyper-aware of how far away everybody in the room is from you”
My chat with Romo included none of these endeavors. It was, in fact,conducted by the most simple and familiar of means: via phone call. “[Like] we’re on the phone right now, and there’s zero contact anywhere in my brain, conscious, subconscious, that we are in the same room,” said Romo. “You don’t feel like you’re in the same place. You can’t understand how far away that person is physically from you. But then if you contrast that, to actually sitting in the same room. […] Somewhere in the back of your brain, subconsciously, is hyper-aware of how far away everybody in the room is from you.”
Spatial awareness is key to what differentiates AltspaceVR from other social or communication platforms. Rather than merely being a gathering place to socialize in, it’s a space where people can co-exist, just as they do everyday in the physical world. Romo cited Second Life (2003) as probably the first universe-building social platform, but also noted its major difference with AltspaceVR. Where Second Life flourishes within the basis of anonymity, in literally having a second virtual life, AltspaceVR is, in contrast, a platform for connecting with people you already know and associate with regularly.
“The amazing thing that happens in Altspace and social VR is that you put on this headset, and you’re in this virtual room with other people, who are all over the world, and you have this sense of where they are physically,” explained Romo. “That feeling of physical space and physical presence is so different from what you can possibly get in any other communications medium. And your brain accepts that these people are there with you.”
Unlike our measly phone call, in AltspaceVR there’s actual activity to coincide with a conversation, beyond the limits of what could otherwise be possible in playing an online videogame. What would be just another Skype chat can turn into something more engaging. In short, it’s like actually hanging out with someone. Whether it’s via playing a trivia game or seeing comedian Reggie Watts perform live stand-up, the technological power exists to feel as if you’re physically in a space together with others, even if you live across the continent from one another.
Perhaps the most prominent pursuant in the VR industry is that of videogames. Games like ADR1FT, in which you’re an astronaut, isolated and floating among a space-bound wreckage. Or the hyper-colorful Fantastic Contraption, a surreal building game, complete with toolbox cats and alternative dimensions acting as menus. Despite VR and videogames pushing the boundaries of transporting you to another world, most games only do that, nothing more. Once the initial awe fades, there’s usually nothing new or interesting to uncover.
Game designer Katie Goode of Triangular Pixels hopes to do something different with VR game design. In her observations, social VR games first gained traction with Fantastic Contraption, and the viewing and presentation of it as a sort of spectatorship. “I feel like in the past six months there’s started to be much more of an awareness about [social VR experiences],” said Goode. Being inspired by these experiences is what led her to work with technical director John Campbell to produce local multiplayer-focused VR games.
Goode’s social VR games aren’t necessarily a bunch of people sitting in a room, VR headsets strapped to their face. In most cases, the games are made asymmetrical—one player might be on a tablet, while the other interacts with the virtual world elsewhere. “I feel that if the game works flat, in 2D, [that] doesn’t necessarily make it a very good VR game,” explained Goode. “So naturally it starts becoming asymmetrical. It becomes one person doing something different.” Triangular Pixels’ VR games range from absolute mayhem like Smash Hit Plunder, to room-scaled, cooperative obstacle courses like Unseen Diplomacy—the latter of which was incidentally inspired by the UK’s popular real-life puzzle-driven show The Crystal Maze (1990).
This doesn’t naturally mean that the competition is split 50/50—an issue that plagued the game jam-initiated Double Destruction. Double Destruction is a Gear VR and Android tablet-controlled game. In it, the VR player must navigate a dark dungeon, while the tablet player must help them light the way with a lantern and defend them from ghastly ghosts. As they quickly developed the title, Goode and Campbell split the gameplay equally among the VR-enabled user with the tablet user, a mistake they realized later on. “So the person in VR was so overwhelmed, and not really able to keep up, [because there was] too much talking,” said Goode. Balancing the gameplay—not evenly, but fairly—and making sure that both players are having fun, are key components to crafting an enjoyable joint-gaming experience for not just asymmetrical gaming, but VR as well.
” they can feel like they’re right there with us”
As it stands, VR is still in its infancy, and as social VR grows, games and other applications will continue to adapt to what the systems require. In Goode’s experience, the idea of game makers rushing to create multiplayer-exclusive games for VR platforms is wildly impractical. “[When] the PlayStation VR comes out, then you’ll start seeing things like The Playroom,” explained Goode, referring to the family-oriented mini-game bundle that PlayStation has promoted for the platform. “But I mean that’s going to be like most people’s first experience of a multiplayer asynchronous VR game. In the same way that Nintendo Land was for the Wii U.”
Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, made a bold prediction at the Mobile World Congress in February 2016. “VR is going to be the most social platform,” he proudly stated, echoing Cattano’s GDC proclamation, but taking it a step further. Zuckerberg compared VR’s wide potential to the history of cataloguing a baby’s first steps. Zuckerberg’s first steps were recorded via pen into a baby book. The first steps of his cousin’s son were documented via photos. His sister’s son’s first steps were similarly recorded with video. Eventually, Zuckerberg hopes, his own child’s first steps can be documented with 360-degree video. “So that way, even if my parents and my family aren’t there to experience it in person, they can feel like they’re right there with us,” he explained.
Following this train of logic, in a few years, I could be conducting hours-long, embedded profile interviews in a virtual social space. I’ll be gathering my roommates together, shoving tables aside to account for room scale, all to play another creative social-driven VR game. And I’ll probably be sharing all these unique experiences with my family via Facebook VR (or something like it), forever trapped in a VR social media refuge—because, hey, it’s probably better than the real world at that point. Who knows? But, right now, at the very least, the future of social VR is ever-changing and taking necessary risks—even if it’s only making those first baby steps.