Even though no one actually has one of the shiny new VR headsets in their hands (or on their heads), the roadmap to the platform's success is becoming clearer. For gamers, it's a no-brainer. They're already on board. For HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to become integral to our daily lives, VR needs to become a social experience. Luckily, how exactly developers are making that happen is also finally becoming clearer, too.
"The first applications of VR that are standalone games are going to be incredibly cool when we first see them. But the interconnectedness and the growth that the Internet enabled, that is what we are going to see with virtual worlds," says Philip Rosedale, one of the founders of Linden Lab, the company that built the virtual world Second Life.
With 1 million users that in total earned $60 million last year by selling virtual goods, Second Life proved the viability of virtual worlds. Rosedale has since cofounded High Fidelity, which is working on software to make virtual worlds for virtual reality. And he isn't the only one that is working on a future with social VR.
With developer kits of the Oculus Rift headset in the hands of thousands of developers, there are already small companies bringing human connection to VR. ConVRge lets a group of people, represented by floating heads, chat. As users move their own heads to look around the virtual world, the avatar responds. In these little outdoor scenes, people can also surf the Internet together, or watch YouTube or Twitch videos on a virtual movie screen. Support for hands through Vive's motion controllers or the Leap Motion sensor is also in the works.
ConVRge has become a favorite of VR developers, where they discuss programming games, or attend a talk by star developers such as those from Google's VR art program Tiltbrush or Lucasfilm's VR developers. Enthusiasts watched the Oculus press event stream in June as a virtual audience.
Shawn Whiting, CEO of ConVRge, says, "Rather than just seeing a text reaction, you are actually seeing people's heads roll back in exasperation of an Xbox controller [packed with the Rift]. Then you hear them start swearing. Then other people join in. It is way more compelling than a Twitch stream with text."
There are also similar meetups in another social app already out for Oculus Rift, VR Chat. It has the usual talking functionality, but also full body avatar controls. Since it runs on the popular Unity graphics engine, people can import their own avatars or build their own room. VR Chat has also been opening things up to allow new things such as simple shooter games.
"We want the world of virtual reality to be what you want to be, not what we tell you it's going to be. That's why everything we do is about user generated experiences. Our community is building the experiences in VR Chat. Not me. We give them robust development tools and they build their own avatars, they build their own environments," says Jesse Joudrey, CEO of VR Chat.
The idea of an open social platform is becoming more attractive to VR companies, and these developers are all VR evangelists who seem to want to create ways for people to have human interaction in virtual worlds, and then get out of the way, before excessive control hinders VR adoption.
One such company is AltSpaceVR, a startup that raised $16 million in venture capital from Comcast, Tencent, and others. Already up and running, it also has chat functions, shared browsing, and video watching, including Netflix streaming. It currently supports the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headset, as well as mobile though Samsung's Gear VR.
Eric Romo, CEO of AltSpaceVR, says, "It is a 3-D webpage that is running in a browser, but it just appears in front of us. And we can interact with it, synchronized between us. But it is able to be created by a typical web developer. It's a very flexible framework for creating these multi-user VR applications. We've seen a broad diversity of things that people are interested in creating."
Another small company, Surre.al, has raised funding through Boost VC. The company plans to launch a beta later this year and an official release early next year, by the time VR headsets are on the market. By building Surre.al's application in Unity, others can make their own virtual scenes that will run on Surre.al servers. Users will have voice and avatar control through the headset, but can also use their hands through tracking device Leap Motion.
Surre.al is also seeking accessibility by making their client work not only on VR headsets, but also on desktop computers and mobile devices for non-VR users. A strong support for mobile means accessibility.
Arthur Goikhman, CEO of Surre.al, says, "In the first 12 or 18 months, the majority of people experiencing VR will be on mobile. It will take some time for the home market. So the ability to reach mobile is very important. You need to be on mobile to have any chance of virality."
Surre.al is also counting on people wanting to be social in VR with the people they are already friends with. The company will be utilizing Facebook's social graph to build interactions. "We love this idea of people being in rooms based on the social graph. If you can automatically go where your friends are, you don't have to search for them by server name or by other concepts alien to a mass audience. It will help a lot," says Goikhman.
Rosedale and the Second Life team had VR in mind way back in the '90s, but decided to focus on software in the face of the primitive VR tech of the time. The company added basic Oculus Rift support to Second Life about a year ago, and have also been building Project Sansar, a follow up to Second Life made for virtual reality, with its technical challenges and immersive benefits. The plan is to have a beta in the first half of next year, with a full release by the end of 2016.
Sansar will also allow people to create their own VR locales. Citing that Texas A&M holds chemistry classes in Second Life, with Sansar, a developer could more easily create and maintain chemistry classes for dozens of colleges.
Rosedale believes the human interaction within personalized virtual worlds can be as powerful as the Internet. "It is inevitable that we will get an Internet-scale audience in a virtual environment. I'm going to be able to wander around and do business and play and see things in virtual spaces. And I would like it to happen in the same scale as the Internet. The round number would be a billion people," says Rosedale.
These applications are starting with just VR headsets, but some are already adding compatibility with motion controllers so you can see hands move, too. Nonverbal communication adds to interactions and makes it more human. Some are even researching eye tracking and facial tracking, to see how your facial expression changes. And how people use such tech will reveal the value in the visions of these companies.
AltSpaceVR's Romo says, "It's about the breadth of reasons people are using social VR. If there's just one thing people will do together in VR, that would be failure to me. This technology gets to the core of so many emotions between people: feeling that you are part of a group, that you connect with people far away, that you can experience things with people. Those emotions are crosscutting to all walks of life. If we come back after two years and people go to lectures, and they play games, and they go to meetings, and they watch sports together—if there is a breadth of things, then I think we will have been successful."