At the recent F8 Conference, Facebook demonstrated a working prototype for their vision of social virtual reality (VR). During the demo, the developer on stage strapped on a headset only to be immediately transported to a virtual space with another Facebook developer. They shared 360 pictures with each other (which transported them to Piccadilly Circus and Big Ben), snapped a virtual selfie inside the 360 photo and drew goofy neckties on one another.
When Facebook bought Oculus in 2014, the Oculus community of Kickstarter backers were enraged. Why would a piece of entertainment technology be co-opted by the world’s leading social mogul?
“Facebook is not a company of grass-roots tech enthusiasts. Facebook is not a game tech company,” argued Minecraft creator Marcus Perrson, a (previously) staunch Oculus supporter.
The demo, however, helped put VR into perspective. It won’t just change the way people play games and watch movies. It will change the way they interact with one another online.
“It’s the difference between going hiking with someone and being on the phone with them while doing laundry,” said Tawny Schlieski, Director of Desktop Research at Intel, explaining what makes social VR so different.
What Schlieski’s example indicates is that the “VR” component of “social VR” is important because it adds a sense of “presence,” a term that refers to the technology’s ability to create a feeling of physically entering another place. According to many developers, these immersive capabilities can be used to create more personal interactions than the current climate of likes, comments, and retweets.
“With traditional social media, you’re looking into a window into another person’s world,” explained Clemens Wangerin, managing director for the VR social app vTime. “But with VR, you’re together with your friends inside another world. It’s fundamentally different to the notion of looking at a flat screen.”
While there isn’t a VR social network just yet, experts agree that the eventual platform will allow people to meet up face-to-face inside a digitally-rendered environment.
The vTime app works along these lines, with users choosing a skin tone and physical appearance for their virtual avatar before meeting up with friends at one of the various scenic locales. As the users converse, their avatars make eye contact. Their lips and expressions sync up with their words. While motion controllers are not supported in the current version, gestures will come soon.
“The power of VR is people coming together at the same moment in time,” said Wangerin.
For these VR experts, the most compelling difference between VR and current social platforms the move from asynchronistic interaction into synchronized, real-time interaction. Anthony Batt, co-founder of the VR studio Wevr believes VR will actually turn non-social online platforms, like Hulu and Netflix, into a more communal activity.
“VR can enhance any current application you can think of, like dating and online matchmaking platforms, and group classrooms for education,” Batt said.
“It can provide real-time social interactions that use head-and-hand tracking technology to create a new form of digital communication,” he continued. “It would enable multiple users from across the world to gather in a virtual theater or living room to watch a movie together.”
In the case of vTime, Wangerin found that most people use the service to make random connections with other people around the world. One couple who met on the app are now engaged, and often, users compare the experience to “going out.”
Wangerin admits that there are some drawbacks to social VR when comparing it to other social media platforms — namely that users can’t check it casually while at a restaurant with friends. VR transports people to a whole other world, so it requires their undivided attention, making it less than ideal for on-the-go communication. While vTime and similar apps run on modern smartphones, the convenience of mobile is lost because users need to strap on a headset that covers up their entire face.
“VR will eventually become a ubiquitous medium, but it will still compete for attention with more mobile platforms,” said Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit.
Despite the practical concerns, Ohanian believes that VR could also eliminate much of the superficiality and posturing that comes with online interactions.
“Social networks like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, et cetera, are driven by a symbiotic relationship between voyeurism and narcissism,” Ohanian said, describing how these platforms encourage people to share filtered versions of themselves in the hopes of receiving validation.
“Basically, all of these sites are great at stimulating superficial connections.”
Ohanian believes that the true potential of social VR lies in how the technology promotes empathy by allowing people to see the world through the eyes of others, sparking a more genuine online social atmosphere. Instead of looking at photographs of a friend’s honeymoon to Bahamas, for instance, VR followers could slip directly into a 360-degree video of their scuba diving adventure.
VR has the power to change online culture, and it will also bring entirely new, unprecedented social experiences, too.
Schlieski spoke of virtual workspaces and collaborations enhanced through 3D models, digital augmentation and even digital holograms. It might just mean those goofy virtual neckties are the new business casual.
At the 2016 Intel Developer Forum (IDF), Intel CEO Brian Krzanich introduced the concept of Merged Reality, where people can physically immerse themselves in virtual worlds.
“Merged reality will profoundly impact the way we work, how we are entertained and how we communicate,” he said.