Opinion: The ‘Holy Grail’ of Social VR

Among the many grievances virtual reality haters will often bring up, the fact that VR is an isolating experience is probably the top criticism (alongside the motion sickness!).

I can see why anyone would feel (and look) antisocial with that huge cumbersome headset: most current VR platforms cut players off from the rest of the real world in order to immerse them in a virtual one. This is often the case, until that virtual world is a massively multiplayer experience. In which case, you invert the paradigm: suddenly the VR headset is not a social blindfold, it is a lens. A window through which you can see users from all over the world.

Ultimately, my long- term goal is to expand the horizon of social immersion

Tanguy Dewavrin, CEO, Atom Republic

For the past 5 years I have been predominantly focusing on developing virtual worlds, which gave me the opportunity to observe how people, often strangers in real life, socialise and interact online. It’s been a fascinating journey. As I aim to continuously improve the players’ experience from different angles, technology is something I always experiment with. VR seems the obvious feature that could greatly enhance a virtual world. My quest is to discover the best way to integrate VR, enhancing and not disrupting the social experience.

Developing for VR is, of course, not without its technical challenges, mostly on the design side: most virtual worlds use text chat, but how can you type on a keyboard if you wear a VR headset? My initial solution is to rely on voice chat if the player is using VR, but I will then experiment with virtual keyboards, using hand tracking devices like Leap Motion. Comfort is also an issue: social players tend to spend hours chatting with other players: would they still last that long if wearing a headset? Would their sessions be shorter?

Most important are the business elements: the elephant in the room is the VR market. Is it ready? How do I fund a VR implementation in a free-to- play game? Is it worth spending months developing a VR version for a target audience of only 1 million PS VR users, or should I instead be catering for the needs of 60 million non-VR PS4 users?

There have been a lot of notable social VR experiments. Some are in early development, like Facebook
Spaces, or SteamVR Home. Others are more advanced, like Project Sansar and VR Chat. If Project Sansar is progressing well, is it because it found its audience, or because Linden Labs can afford to fund it? The termination of Altspace VR could indicate that it’s too early for Social VR.

I hear that VR players are the more hardcore players, more into FPS or action games, and therefore not interested in social and casual games. But is it not because those are just the early adopters of the technology? In which case I would argue that the future of VR is social: surely, soon the audience for VR will not be limited to games, but destined to expand into virtual worlds and serious simulations.

Ultimately, my long-term goal is to expand the horizon of social immersion, for players from all over the world, on any platform imaginable. I created Atom Universe as the first and only cross-platform virtual world, with a focus on social interaction. Currently my PS4 players can not only meet 60 million PlayStation Users, but also 160 million Steam users, and vice-versa, and I’d love to expand this to more platforms. The next step is to make this experience more immersive: wouldn’t it be more compelling to meet your friends face to face, in 3D?

Players spend so long customising their avatar, they want others to be able to inspect it up close: hairdo, matching outfit, super-swag jewellery. Using Unreal Engine 4 allows us to quickly prototype VR across PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive: the results have been very promising so far.

Social VR will remain my Holy Grail: I will implement it, but it has to be done right. It will take time, but it will be the cornerstone which joins the two core pillars of my edifice: social interactions made immersive with VR perspective, and the VR medium made social by connecting users to the outside world, rather than locking them in.

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