With Sony confirming that a commercial version of Project Morpheus will go on sale in 2016 and Oculus VR finally committing to a 1Q 2016 launch for its Rift headset, virtual reality (VR) technology is within tantalizingly close reach of the mass market. Thus far, much of the discussion around use cases for head-mounted displays (HMDs) like these understandably centered on solo activities – namely gaming. While gaming will undoubtedly be a huge segment of the overall VR market, many people cannot quite get their heads around what else they might use an HMD for, let alone justify the hundreds of dollars they would need to acquire a high-end device like the Rift. Upon purchasing Oculus VR for $2 billion last year, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg shared his belief that “Oculus has the potential to be the most social platform ever.” Sony, meanwhile, has talked about the need to defeat social alienation if VR headsets are to become mass consumer items.
So, is social the killer app for VR?
AltspaceVR, a startup based in Redwood City, California, would certainly seem to share this viewpoint. With the help of over $5 million in funding from the likes of Google Ventures, the company, which remained in stealth mode for much of its early existence, is working on creating shared experiences around anything based on the web. As an example, it hosted the first ever Oculus Super Bowl party where fans of the Seahawks and Patriots were able to watch their teams duke it out in a virtual room hosting a huge TV and a comfortable looking circular seating area around it.
The company believes that although social is already compelling, in order to be even more compelling, there needs to be a reason for people to come together in virtual reality in the first place. Not only do people go to the game together, they head to the cinema together and on the enterprise side, people need to come together for work purposes – maybe there is a requirement for separately-located team-members to review a certain design in 3D. These scenarios are therefore more likely to work when it comes to social VR. However, different people obviously find different things compelling and there are several other important factors to consider if social VR is to succeed.
First, do virtual worlds actually need to exactly recreate what we’re used to in the real world? While a virtual theater could be large with different people spaced many seats apart, it’s probably not an ideal scenario for someone to have to leave their virtual house, cross the virtual road, and stop by the virtual burger joint in order to get to that virtual theater. AltspaceVR has actually introduced a teleport mechanism in its virtual worlds that allow users to click on a location in order to move across the room in an instant, without suffering motion sickness.
A second consideration is how the user appears and then behaves in the virtual world. The above graphic shows two avatars at the Super Bowl party. Clearly, neither of these look like the real human beings they are supposed to represent. Though an end goal for social VR is for people to walk into a virtual space and recognize somebody else, it is currently almost impossible to make an authentic copy of a human being that when animated, doesn’t freak you out. Essentially, these avatars are essentially placeholders until this issue is overcome. Time will tell if Otoy’s new photorealistic technology will help matters. None of this is to say these avatars cannot mimic human behavior, though. AltspaceVR has paid a lot of attention to the way in which we non-verbally interact with one another and has made body language a central feature of its work. For example, you can get an idea as to whether someone is paying attention to a presentation from the direction their head is facing, if they are nodding in agreement or shaking their head, or even just gesticulating in a certain way. All of this helps to give a greater sense of actually being in the virtual environment.
3D audio is something else AltspaceVR sees as key to making people believe they are a part of the scene. When people are close together in a virtual space, the company’s solution will automatically make it sound as though those voices are right next to each other – it is even possible to whisper in each other’s ears. In many of the conversations I have had when conducting the research for Tractica’s forthcoming reports on virtual reality, 3D audio has probably cropped up the most times when talking about making VR more immersive. VisiSonics, a spin-out of the University of Maryland’s Computer Science department, has created the RealSpace 3D audio software, which enables the virtual placement of sound anywhere in a 3D space with pinpoint accuracy. The company is said to be in conversations with almost everyone in the VR market, having already licensed the technology to Oculus in October 2014.
Social VR is definitely coming and it’s got some big money behind it. It is also going to be a lot more than just the ability to view 360 spherical videos in your Facebook news feed.