Will Virtual Reality Replace Skype?

I recorded my first-ever podcast interview in VR yesterday, with blogger Bufo Calvin. It was oddly delightful.

Bufo Calvin’s avatar in vTime

I have already been amazed at how easily my mind is fooled by a Virtual Reality headset.

When I don my bulky Gear VR, I become a surfer looking up at the wave over my head, or a Syrian refugee cooking a meal in a bombed-out building.

VR’s magic trick, the one that fools my mind every time I enter a VR “experience,” is to allow me look in any direction I choose — up, down, left, right, in front or behind. It’s why VR feels so real compared with a “flattie.” (That’s a term I saw in a New Yorker piece describing traditional video. A flattie gives you a single view, the one determined by the director in each moment of the video.)

Yesterday I watched my mind get fooled by VR in a brand-new way.

It began three months ago when a fellow Kindle/Amazon/publishing blogger, Bufo Calvin — creator of I Love My Kindle and The Measured Circle — emailed me the following suggestion:

Would you be interested in doing an interview actually in VR? We could use the vTime experience…and there are the options to allow an audience and/or you could invite some other guests. I know it can be recorded and made available to others…

Bufo and I emailed back and forth, shaping the idea. I decided to limit the vTime conversation to just the two of us, because I wanted the audio to be easy to follow on my podcast. I worried that it would be a challenge to describe in spoken words what we were seeing in VR as we talked, in order to keep things interesting.

My vTime avatar

We did a trial run on Monday, exploring different destinations and testing our recording gear. vTime does have a recording feature, but it’s temporarily down for repair, so each of us hooked up a microphone to record the two sides of the interview. Afterward I merged them in LogicPro for tomorrow’s show.

I have interviewed Bufo on the podcast before, recording just the audio track during a Skype video call. That’s the way I have done most of the 452 Kindle Chronicles interviews so far. Skype is a lot better than connecting with someone by phone, because the flow of a conversation goes more smoothly when my guest and I can read facial cues as we talk.

What fooled my mind yesterday was the illusion that Bufo and I were chatting right next to each other, in the same room or on nearby rocks in a stream, depending on the vTime destination we chose.

He was actually in California, and I was here in Denver. A Skype connection would have emphasized that geographic separation, because we would have been looking from whatever room we were in, through the computer screen, to another room hundreds of miles away.

The illusion of proximity is cleverly enhanced in vTime by how your avatar gestures and moves his or her head when talking. If I look up and to the right with my headset on, my avatar in vTime looks in the same direction.

As part of our interview, Bufo and I shared reactions to the VR interview itself. He said it felt more natural than Skype, because in vTime our avatars looked around from time to time instead of staring fixedly at each other.

In an underwater destination, a grouper or a whale might swim by, and our avatars naturally looked over or up to admire them. This made the conversation seem freer, less rigid.

Bufo offered a nice analogy when he said a cat entering a room tends to jump up on the person least interested in having it in his or her lap. That’s because the people staring at the cat and going “here, Kitty” actually appear threatening. It’s more welcoming not to stare.

vTime crashed a few times, and the avatars and destinations are pretty crude. These are early days. I heard a speaker at South By Southwest last month state that there are only 12 to 15 million VR headsets in use worldwide.

Even so, my mind was fooled quite nicely during my VR chat with Bufo. It’s easy to imagine improvements in the technology over the next few years that will steadily enhance the magic.

Our avatars will be able to look quite like our real selves, if we like. They will be able to wink, frown, smile, and hiccup. Our VR conversations will enable us to look in any direction, at our guest or not, as we like. The settings for our conversations might be replicas of real places, like the Starbucks down the street in Writers Square, or fine renderings of an asteroid or desert island.

My mind has always enjoyed being fooled by art and technology, whether it’s immersion in a great novel or surround sound.

I can’t wait to see what tricks the wizards of VR will try on me next.