VR Social Networks will be all the rage in 2018

Think of all the ways Facebook and Twitter changed how you communicate with your friends and colleagues. Now multiply times ten, and you have social VR.

Social VR has the potential to revolutionize online interactions. Before taking a huge hit to their reputation after multiple privacy scandals, Facebook was making the news with its enormous investments in VR. With the launch of Samsung’s Gear VR headset for mobile phones, Zuckerberg boldly proclaimed that “VR is going to be the most social platform. The best is still to come”.

Zucks playing around with an Oculus headset

Granted, people have been slow to take to VR headsets. Since the release of the first Oculus, gaming enthusiasts have contributed to the majority of VR headset sales. However, many industry leaders think that it will be social experiences that will bring people on board the VR bandwagon.

Why Social VR will change the game

A major reason why more consumers aren’t excited for virtual reality tech is that there isn’t enough quality content out there. Quality virtual content is expensive to produce, and those doing the work are monetizing their services after seeing the slow market response. This is where social networks in virtual reality will change the game.

“Social is core and should be an underlying layer in all kinds of experience. You can get bored of a platform but not of people interacting with each other through that platform,” — Vinay Narayan, VR Product Management, HTC Vive.

There are already a number of exciting social virtual reality experiences available, many of them being free and in beta. Moreover, you can try out some of these VR social networks in 2D on your Mac or PC before you decide on shelling out the big bucks for a high end headset.

But really, being able to look over your shoulder at your friends gathering round for a group VR selfie, or dancing with them to your favorite tunes is something you can only do with a proper VR setup. Good news is, standalone VR headsets becoming cheaper and more accessible at a breakneck pace.

vTime

Currently, vTime is perhaps the best marriage of all the features you need to socialise in a VR space. While vTiming, you can sit around campfire style with avatars of three of your best mates or complete strangers, and share a conversation…

In Outer Space!
Underwater!
In Pah-reee! (images via vTime)

I love how vTime has creatively overcome the technical challenges involved in having four people from different parts of the world seamlessly interact with each other in a shared space. Namely, by focusing on the actual act of communication and still managing to make everything look incredible with pre-rendered environments.

Rec Room

So what you couldn’t beat the high school jock on the field? Give him a much deserved butt-whooping on a round of VR dodgeball in Rec Room!

This innovative social VR platform gamifies the act of socializing by adding fun-twists on traditional games (like disc golf, 3d paint charades and paint ball) that you can play with anybody who’s online. They’ve recently capitalised on their stellar shooting mechanism by introducing co-op missions with an array of laser guns.

Play Charades by Painting in 3D
Engage in some limbless Dodgeball
Paintball minus the pain? Count me in! (images via Against Gravity)

Rec Room is lauded by many as the best platform for multiplayer virtual reality gaming right now. Against Gravity Studios has fine-tuned the physics of the game to make it just the right amount of fun and challenging for room-scale VR shooting. It is free to download and to play from Steam on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Playstation VR.

AltSpaceVR

AltSpaceVR is one of the first and biggest social VR networks. If vTime is the tranquil cafe of virtual reality space, then AltSpace is the bustling city center. There was much drama last year when AltSpaceVR had to shut down after running out of funding, but Microsoft later acquired and it’s back up in full glory.

With support from the NBC, AltSpace has continued celebrity appearances — the likes of Reggie Watts, Drew Carey, and Al Roker have performed and interacted with audiences on the platform in ways that just aren’t possible in real life. This is realized with AltSpaceVR’s FrontRow feature, which mirrors personalities on stage to multiple rooms without latency, resulting in VR concerts with audiences upto 40,000 strong looking like a friendly meetup.

Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty) and musician Reggie Watts on stage
Bill Nye the Science Guy (on the right) talks about solving world problems
Gather your friends for some good ol’ D&D (images via Microsoft)

There are many virtual reality spaces to explore in AltSpace including campfires, movie theaters and even AltSpace’s own Dungeons and Dragons style tabletop fantasy roleplay game. AltSpaceVR is yet another well-developed VR world that is easy to immerse yourself in.

VR Chat

VRChat is the virtual reality platform that shines the most on this list and has become a hit with YouTubers. Chaotic and random as it may be, the main selling point of VRChat is allowing users to add their own content to the world. VRChat is filled with players assuming avatars of characters from popular video games, cartoons and anime, with Pokemon, Dark Souls and Rick and Morty references in abundance.

VRChat has its own talkshow on things happening in the platform (via VRChat)
Dance party with users in anime and Pooh bear avatars (via VRChat Moments)

Last year, VRChat even birthed its own meme with users in Uganda Knuckles avatars swarming around others and being creepy.

The creators of VRChat intended to make a VR space that people actually wanted to hang about in, and they’ve succeeded for the large part. For now, it seems like giving users the freedom to create worlds for themselves and others is the way to go for social vr. If you’re looking for a surreal, zany experience where you get to see who people really are under their skin, then VRChat is perfect for you.

High Fidelity VR

Think of High Fidelity as the older, more sensible brother of VRChat. The game and physics engine for High Fidelity VR is particularly well-developed and not only allows user-created content, but even lets you create your own mini games — no matter how simple or complex. Drawing computational resources from user PCs to run the network is something that keeps the experience smooth and ‘high fidelity’, despite the massive amount of detail.

Build and play your own minigames
…or just fly around with your crew

High Fidelity is the brainchild of Philip Rosedale, co-founder of Secondlife who wanted to create a VR world where you can make things like in real life. Indeed, users can summon, shape and manipulate objects ingame as their avatar to create highly intricate environments and unique experiences.

High Fidelity VR makes creating environments easy (images via High Fidelity VR)

The future of Social VR

Current VR social experiences might be on the frontier of social networking, but they still leave a lot to be desired. One of the biggest problems is VR users acting in bothersome and inappropriate ways.

Earlier this year, users on VRChat witnessed a fellow user undergo an epileptic seizure with full body tracking. While most people were concerned and tried to comfort the victim, some continued to mess around and harass the individual having the seizure.

The mask of anonymity that the internet provides gives cyber-bullies free rein. With added immersion thanks to the feeling of bodily presence on virtual platforms, being groped or verbally assaulted by malevolent users can be especially traumatizing.

“Visible ways to flag bad actors can sometimes be enough to prevent bad actions in the first place” says Seth Schneider, Developer Relations, Intel. One safety implementation I like is Bigscreen VR’s personal VR bubble, which prevents people from getting too close and blocking out your entire visual field. VRChat is also employing moderators who’re on the lookout for unsavory characters.

Virtual social spaces should grant users creative and expressive freedom in ways the real world doesn’t. The end goal should be to devise systems that keep bad behaviour in check without excessive policing.

Moving from the Information Age into an Experiential one

When Social VR becomes as commonplace as Snapchat, we’ll be looking back at the social networks of the 2010’s and scratch our heads in wonder. “How did we manage to put up with such arcane technology?” As VR tech gets better, it will allow exchanges of all the intricacies of human nature in stunning detail.

A picture may speak a thousand words, and video might show you 30 frames per second… but only VR can transcend time and space to give form to the dimension of human thought.