In Part I of this extended exploration of what people who are not major gamers can do with their Oculus Go VR Headset, I described a half dozen easy-to-access sources of interesting content. More or less passively consuming brief little immersive experiences is what most VR commentators think the Go is good for — simple games and 360 videos.
Most of the content available now is dated, material produced over a year ago for Samsung’s Gear VR. Even the best, most up-to-date stereo 360s with spatial audio rarely make me want to go back for a second experience.
This situation will change, but only when the nature of the content changes. Serialized, long-form stories with characters I care about will make me want come back to see what happens. Those stories do not exist yet in VR, at least I haven’t found them for the Go.
But something else does exist. It’s not featured in VR Go articles, or in the Go-world inside the headset itself. You could probably spend hours in VR just watching stuff and not even checking out AltspaceVR, which would be a shame.
For the moment, AltspaceVR is Social VR in an Oculus Go headset. Most places in VR designed to let us interact with other people still need big computers to do the heavy lifting. AltspaceVR was built with greater graphic simplicity, working within the current limitations of mobile VR.
What does it mean to have graphically simple avatars and places in your Social VR experience? Surprisingly little, in my opinion, and more
importantly, in the opinion of long-time VR researcher Professor Mel Slater, who has demonstrated in hundreds of experiments that a feeling of presence, of ‘being there,’ is not strongly influenced by visual fidelity.
What makes us feel present is what evolutionary biology has decided should make us feel present. First, we tend to believe that our eyes are viewing from where we are. Professor Slater calls this Self-Location, which is heavily biased toward our visual-spatial perspective. Second, we think something is ourself when we experience our internal intention and control over its bodily movements. Both of those conditions occur with our avatars in social VR spaces.
We survived because we kept our attention where our eyes said our bodies were and we looked for anything changing, big things. We didn’t wait around for a hi-res view. Shapes and sizes were enough to make something matter.
At some point in the human story we realized that other people have an inner life just like our own, sort of, which led to multiple systems, mostly in the cortex, for trying to figure each other out. We are not consciously aware of most of their work. Will they be able to help us navigate safely through Social VR?
No one really knows how our social behavior will be influenced by virtual environments. So far, it looks like we extend our own sense of ‘being there’ easily to others in VR, especially when we interact or work together on something. It doesn’t take much to create a sense of shared presence.
At an Oculus Venues comedy event, I was ‘seated’ next to a young man who initiated a conversation in a whispered tone, like you would in a real theater. I looked toward where he supposedly was and whispered back. That led to a brief exchange about headsets and things to do in Altspace during which he also told me he was there with his father, “and he’s 47!” my new friend quietly exclaimed. I thought that was sharing a lot for our first meeting.
Shared Presence in AltspaceVR
There is a manageable amount of activity in Altspace, by which I mean you can still easily see and read information about the whole event schedule for a week, still get the sense that you know all the options. It’s a very nice feeling and it probably won’t last much longer.
I haven’t actually done everything there is to do, even though I know about almost all of it at some level. I’ve attended at least a dozen virtual events, from live news shows to art gallery openings, tech talks on the metaverse to open mic nights (that mostly sucked).
Everything I’ve attended felt like I was attending something. In my memory, sometimes weeks later, it still feels like I attended the event, just like my memories of so-called real world events, only more so. Maybe because of the newness.
Some of the programs that felt cool only a month ago aren’t around any more. They ran out of steam, their sustainability model having miscalculated a few variables. So some observations I’d make from what I’ve done so far might be more useful than a survey of the quick and the dead.
1) We Don’t Know What To Do in Social VR When It’s Not Obvious
I can’t help but project my own experience, but I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who isn’t clear how to act in an unstructured Social VR situation. Fairly structured events where you sit and watch make up most of AltspaceVR. They’re easy. The big exception is the Campfire, an always-open area where you can count on finding a small group of avatars/other people hanging out.
Maybe it’s just me, but I haven’t done very well at the Campfire. I haven’t struck up engaging conversations with strangers. I haven’t started stimulating discussions or joined on-going ones. I haven’t made new friends.
I’m not very good at just talking to people I don’t already know in so-called real life either. Apparently VR doesn’t automatically turn me into someone I’ve never been. Maybe the randomness of the Campfire isn’t conducive to deeper conversations. Maybe AltspaceVR needs new kinds of lightly structured situations to create a place for people to talk,
2) We’re Still Using Old-School Formats and Lay-Outs
Every event I attended had an MC or some sort of performer at the front, with everyone else assembled audience-style as if we were subject to the same rules and limitations of physical location in space that we have always known.
We aren’t subject to anything in VR. We could all sit in the same seat, which really means all share the exact same perspective — without feeling like we’re in a gigantic virtual pig pile.
When the whole experience is unfamiliar, we crave some element of familiarity. Personally, I’d rather try out some new ways of organizing ourselves, beyond the simple one-to-many forms I’m seeing here so far. There must be ways of designing and managing events that would work in VR and make it easy for the people who show up to interact.
3) High Quality One-On-One and Small Group Interaction Can Happen
What the heck is a high-quality interaction? What the heck is quality, for that matter? It took Robert Pirsig the entire length of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ to conclude that Quality (his capitalization) cannot be defined because the positive value is experienced at a pre-rational level. In other words, we feel Quality separately from our thoughts and ideas about whatever it is.
High quality conversation is one thing that will keep me coming back to AltspaceVR day after day. Rather than being jacked into a brief immersive one-way experience of some exotic place, I’d like to have two-way talks with other people living different lives than mine.
It doesn’t even have to be a deep discussion to establish a nice sense of shared presence. For example, I went to an event called ‘Building the Metaverse,’ sort of an inside view of AltspaceVR. There was a Q&A period and I asked a question. I got a clear answer. The interaction was positive and it had value for me. At this point, that felt like a high-quality interaction. I suppose the bar isn’t set very high these days.
I know we will be able to create new kinds of spaces for people to talk and collaborate and sit around shooting the shit, all of that and more. There is one place in particular, an AltspaceVR on-going event, where I am actively involved and being engaged with other people the most.
My son, Rev. Jeremy Nickel, is an ordained Unitarian Universalist Minister and the name of his on-going event place in AltspaceVR is Sacred VR. Exploring ways to worship together in VR is one of his interests. Mine too. Funny how that goes sometimes.
Meditation is a rare phenomenon in world culture today. It is highly accepted across an amazingly diverse spectrum. It is seen as sacred and it is seen as practical. It is utilized as a way to evolve spiritually and as a way to improve return-on-investment (ROI). It is a tool, a neural technology.
Often it is practiced individually. Sometimes it is practiced in a group setting, which produces a different experience that can include a noticeable amplifier effect. What if you could do both at once — meditate by yourself, but also with other people who aren’t anywhere near you? That hybrid form is precisely what meditation in VR provides. My son and I see it as a new, third way.
I have attended sessions with Jeremy leading both a progressive relaxation exercise and mindfulness meditation. I have also led sessions on my own, when he was unable to attend, as a Guest VR Meditation Group Leader, (I just like writing that title). I find it exhilarating.
But what does it have to do with Social VR? Meditation might be fantastic but it is a solo experience. Well, yes and no.
Group meditation with co-located people is social before, during, and after the actual meditation, in that we interact with and influence each other, verbally and non-verbally, in different ways during different phases of the overall event. Group meditation in VR feels like it might have a similar social dimension.
My son knows how to lead an social event. Letting people check-in at the start if they want to helps bring people together. We do that before every meditation and most, but not all, of the avatars are happy to share their name, the location of their physical body and maybe, very briefly, something on their mind at the moment. It takes a little time but it’s worth it.
Then we meditate. It is a cooperative act, freely undertaken. We start together, engage in the same practice together, and end together. Every time I open my eyes inside the headset and see all the other avatars still there, I feel a wave of emotion that I think is a mixture of surprise and appreciation.
Most other participants also share a brief check-out. We do this, like the check-ins, in a structured way, moving in a consistent direction around the room calling on each avatar in turn. People tend to be enthusiastic about the experience they had; it is easy to hear in their voice.
When everyone who wants to speak has spoken, the event is still not over. In fact, you never know, but the event could be entering its most interesting phase — the unstructured milling around after the planned, formal parts are complete. Some people might feel that they are in an environment where it is alright to bring up matters they wouldn’t bring up at the campfire, which is what happens, sometimes.
I love the Sacred VR meditation space my son started in AltspaceVR, because I can access it in my Oculus Go, because I believe meditation can help people — and also because it is an excellent situation for learning more about the kinds of Social VR experiences I want to be a part of. We need healthy discussions across tribes and cultures, urgently. Social VR spaces could be one way to have them. The designs and techniques that work well can be imitated and replicated. It could happen quickly.
Sounds promising, right? But being the home for conversations and bridge building is not the direction Social VR will inherently take. Commercial dynamics will ensure that watching purchased content with far-flung friends is seriously promoted as the Most Fun Ever, along with pay-for-the-good-stuff live events in traditional formats.
There will also be boundary-pushing experiments with new ideas for new formats. Will any of them hit the mainstream, scale up and become seriously disruptive? I’ll be working on it.