Why Virtual Reality Will Be the Most Social Computing Platform Yet

The future of immersive virtual reality is often depicted as a dystopian view of millions of people spending hours alone each day, with huge gadgets stuck to their face, enraptured by fantastical worlds.

But it’s going to be millions of people spending time together  — with friends, family, colleagues, and new acquaintances  — experiencing moments together no matter the physical distance between them.

The key to understanding why “social VR” will be important is to think about virtual (and augmented) reality as a computing platform, rather than as a PC peripheral for gaming. Looking at previous generations of computing platforms like the web or mobile, social networks have always proven to be one of the strongest drivers of adoption and engagement, making the underlying platforms vastly more valuable.

While VR going mainstream — and therefore social — is still a few years out, early adopters are already getting glimpses of what’s to come: a re-imagining of interaction through computing that more closely maps to how we work, play, and learn with people In Real Life (IRL). Except we’ll also have superpowers, because you, the environment, and the mechanisms of contact between the two are all bits instead of atoms. Objects can be manipulated in ways they can’t be IRL.

We’re already seeing signs of social VR emerge from companies creating virtual spaces. Some start with the natural extension of virtual worlds like Second Life; AltSpace, for example, has built the decades-old Dungeons and Dragons experience into their worlds:

The team at BigScreen, meanwhile, takes advantage of the distinction between atoms and bits to make the mundane magical through an Oculus Rift and HTC Vive app that brings your Windows desktop into a virtual environment you share with up to three other people. At first glance that idea seem ridiculous: Why would someone want their desktop floating around with them and their friends while they’re hanging out in VR?

To play games on the couch together, for one thing!

It’s the best place to host a “LAN” party — the phrase gamers use for everyone bringing their PCs/consoles to the same place to play together, which has gone out of fashion with the rise of online gaming. Only now you’re still playing from the comfort of your own home (one of the reasons online beat out local multiplayer), have as much couch space as you need for the group you’re with, and everyone can have as big of a monitor as they want.

Just a couple weeks ago, Pool Nation VR launched on the HTC Vive. Like BigScreen, it brings several people into the same environment to hang out while enjoying another activity  — in this case, playing a game of pool (or darts) at a bar:

In addition to making you feel like you’re in the same room as your friends, Pool Nation VR lets you line up your shots with more confidence than IRL with interface elements overlaying what you see and the ability to lock your cue at a specific angle. And at the end of a close game, the loser can vent by smashing a couple of bottles — something you wouldn’t advocate in real life — without the guilt of making a mess for someone to clean up or risk of hurting somebody.

In another sports game example, Futuretown’s Cloudlands: VR Minigolf brought the classic weekend hangout/date activity to the HTC Vive as a launch title, including a fairly comprehensive multiplayer offering:

Again, the experience mimics that of real-world minigolf, with your swings coming from actual motions taken with controllers that are tracked in physical space (as opposed to the well-timed clicks or taps used in traditional golf video games). But it also gives you superpowers not possible in the real-life experience: I could play a round with my cousin in St. Louis from my living room in Oakland, and keep track of every shot with a line highlighting where my putts ended up.

In yet another example of social VR, Facebook showed off at its F8 conference this year how “virtual tourism” will let anyone — not just wealthy travelers who can afford such trips — casually visit amazing destinations with friends and family, perhaps even snapping some selfies (with customizable avatars enabling even more expressiveness than Snapchat’s Lenses) along the way:

So what will make social VR work?

While we still don’t know what the killer social apps that drive virtual reality into the mainstream will be, the examples I’ve shared so far hint at the trajectory…

They don’t treat “social” as a platform for sharing media or (reactions to media) that reflect the persona you want people to see when they look at your profile, as with much social media today. Rather, these early social VR experiences closely mimic the actual interactions you’d have if you did those activities in person. Only now with magical capabilities layered on — like turning physical displays into just another app that can be dragged around and re-sized at will or to having lines indicate where your putt went as if you were watching a professional golf tournament on TV.

They give us a lens through which to view social interaction in VR  — as a spectrum ranging from “this activity is an excuse to hang out with friends, which is what I’m really trying to do” (real-life equivalent: going to a bar with friends) to “this activity is the core experience, but it’s made better by doing it with other people” (real-life equivalent: going to the movies with friends). The key to translating this real-life spectrum to VR is to figure out which parts of the in-person experience could be manipulated, distorted, or magically extended by giving participants superpowers or putting them into even more fantastical, immersive environments. To port the experience of seeing Paranormal Activity in theaters with friends to VR, you don’t put users in a virtual movie theater — you put them in the haunted house.

They include some aspects of social apps from previous computing platforms, including, unfortunately, trolling and harassment. But VR enables new approaches to dealing with these issues that wouldn’t work in the narrow world of feeds on smartphone screens. Basically, because you can track exactly where users are, what they’re looking at, and what they’re interacting with, VR developers can build systems to prevent problematic behavior directly into the environment and modes of interaction. A VR dating app could provide the subtle advantages of real-life dating, like making eye contact and communicating through body language, while also providing capabilities from mobile apps, like muting and blocking (imagine being able to make that obnoxious guy in the bar disappear with a literal blink of the eye). Google demonstrated several approaches to handling problematic behavior in their Daydream Lab keynote at Google I/O [segment starts at 23:26]:

And then there’s VR for telepresence

Just as early modern VR headsets (think the Oculus developer kits back in 2013) gave early adopters a glimpse of what was to come in a rough package, these early social VR apps also hint at a major problem that will be solved by VR, the computing platform: the disappointment among those of us in tech who hoped that internet communication technologies would facilitate distributed work through telepresence. It’s an ugly world for a useful thing: the ability to connect remotely as if in person; hugely valuable for an increasingly distributed workforce.

While many messaging and video chat applications have already reduced the number of face-to-face interactions or calls that need to happen to get work done, there’s something about the “mediated” communication they enable that doesn’t quite let us replace physical interaction entirely. If I want feedback on a single slide I’m presenting at an internal meeting, I’d still rather get up and walk my laptop over to a colleague’s desk rather than upload my PDF to Box, send them a link via Slack, and then wait for them to respond asynchronously.

And no matter how good the streaming tech, if a sales executive is looking to close a huge deal, they’d much rather meet with their customer in person than sign the contract over a Google Hangout. There are some things that just have to be done in person, they’ll say.

But today’s social VR applications suggest that these limitations may fall away as the headsets and sensors powering the experiences more closely approximate real interactions. For instance, when I first tried Oculus’s Toybox demo last year, I was shocked by how much of a person’s body language comes through with just head and hand tracking. It turns out that even the seemingly limited combination of voice, head movement, and gesticulation of hands mapped to an abstract avatar can convey the unique subtle behaviors we exhibit without thinking about them.

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Within a few generations — mapped in Moore’s Law time, this means years not decades — VR setups will track where our eyes are pointed (letting us making meaningful eye contact); track our facial muscles (one of the key signals our brains look for when interacting with a person to decide whether they’re trustworthy); and have haptic feedback that allows for simple physical contact (like the feel of a strong vs. a soft handshake).

By layering on these basic components of in-person social interaction, VR doesn’t just become a better way to meet or work with someone digitally  —  it becomes the best way.

That’s when VR becomes more than a fun novelty for gamers. It will challenge assumptions about how entire organizations, not just teams should be organized; when it’s necessary or appropriate to have in-person meetings; how we negotiate and share new ideas; and how people get to know each other in a naturally immersive vs. contrived way. And for each of these assumptions that’s challenged, there will likely be a new startup that reveals the new way of doing things.