Does chat have a place in VR?


As social media begins its forays into virtual, augmented and mixed reality, the obvious UX question is: does this have a place here? This article by UploadVR tracks how WeChat and its massive Chinese userbase are attempting to bring this virtual social experience exclusively to the HTC Vive. Facebook Spaces offers a similar (also proprietary) avatar-filled virtual space, hoping that the ubiquity of the platform and its Oculus hardware will help it gain a foothold in the West. The creators of Second Life are also throwing their hat into the ring with the platform-independent Sansar social VR.

Sansar Screenshot via:

So back to my question: Does chat have a place in VR, AR or Mixed Reality?

I assert that: As with anything, situationally maybe.

Let’s start with text chat as illustrated in the thumbnail. Breaking down the utility of text chat is key. Text chat lets a user examine a record of conversation involving multiple other users. The more other users and the more important their contributions to the chat log are towards achieving the user goals, the more utility text chat has.

Voice/video chat seems a bit more natural fit for VR, but with more than about three additional participants in a chat, does attempting to manage all those voices make voice chat too painful to use? Google Hangouts group chatting attempts to manage this automatically by prioritizing who’s currently speaking and putting their stream or avatar in the main window of the group video chat. In situations where there is a clear chat leader, this becomes less difficult to manage, but what about situations where there is no clear hierarchy or all participants have equally pressing priority or importance? The loudest voice may not have the most important information. Additionally, in the case of a group video chat, does the Google Hangouts method of prioritizing a chat participant make sense in the context of taking up real estate in a VR field of vision? In the case of Sansar, do you have to worry about proximity of your avatar in relation to other participants in a chat, and is it worth the hassle?

The other concern is HCI: how does the user scan a chat log without a touchscreen, while not compromising the VR/AR/MR experience? Can a sufficiently advanced voice recognition help make using the chat less burdensome? Is a user going to have to dedicate energy into using nonintuitive gestures to control the chat?

Is a hybrid of voice and text chat a solution? Dealing with many users in a voice chat can be painful, but would having a text record of the chats running simultaneously help? These may not be concerns for most users since the average user may not have more than a few other people in chat, but what about popular public figures? MMOs or other VR spaces like Sansar? Managing an irregular or fluctuating number of participants?

Using Facebook’s Live streaming service as an example, is VR chat better off as just livestreaming with viewer reactions?

Finally, we probably should acknowledge the last man standing in social VR, Linden Labs’s Second Life, running since 2003, which is an unfathomably long time in tech years.

“As the VR market continues to grow, new experiences are introduced, and new hardware is released, we’re seeing many experiences and behaviors that reflect what Second Life users have been doing for years,” Altberg said.
Indeed, the most surprising thing about Second Life is not that it’s still a thing, but that 13 years after its inception, it is still way ahead of its time.”
“Why is Second Life Still a Thing?”, Vice: Motherboard, April 2016

What do you think?