Social VR

Few months ago I wrote an article for russian Forbes, here’s an english version:

Living Avatars — What Else Awaits Us In Social VR?

Solutions for social VR, in which users are able to interact with each other, are being developed both by industry giants and by startups. Facebook, at their Spaces conference in April, has claimed a stake in the market. What will the future hold for the industry?

The majority of experts affirm that content itself is the most important factor in the development of the VR market. In 2016, Perkins Coie and Upload interviewed about 650 respondents in the industry, ranging from entrepreneurs and technical directors to investors and consultants, and concluded in their research that the main obstacles to VR/AR development are:

  • lack of quality and impressive content;
  • difficulties with user experience;
  • equipment cost.

It is not acceptable today to talk about retention rate in VR industry, but I suppose the best indicators so far belong to applications with updated content, as well as to applications for socializing with other users in VR. In MMORPGs, the rate of social involvement directly correlates with the duration of an average session and this is likely true for VR as well: the possibility to communicate with other people reinforces the sense of immersion and thus increases usage. From personal experience (Prosense, the author’s company, is involved in VR broadcasting), apart from professional involvement in various events through VR, most of the my time on the platform is spent socializing. And, at the end of 2015, the final brick in forming my faith in virtual reality’s future was laid by experiencing meetings through a social application. We were sitting, by means of VR, on a platform next to a tall mountain, surrounded by flying eagles with hills and forests spread out below — it was a perfect accompaniment to finalizing the details of a partnership agreement.

In April 2017, Facebook announced “Spaces” for Oculus Rift — this is a social network in virtual reality that raises conventional network mechanics to a whole new level. In virtual reality we now aren’t limited to mere communication — we can draw, watch videos in 360°, make video calls through Messenger and create VR-selfies together with our Facebook friends. Its creators predict that Spaces will become multi-platform and be made available across different VR headsets.

The launch of Spaces shows that Facebook has staked a claim on social interaction, but it is not the first product for social VR, even for Facebook. At the end of 2016, there was a project, known as Rooms, presented on Gear VR where the opportunity to socialize, play games and watch movies together with Facebook friends was made possible with personalized avatars, though with an absence of hand or spatial tracking. Similar functions have become part of Oculus Home. Installation statistics, unfortunately, are not available, but the technical side is of incredible importance to me — in April 2017 Oculus Home was updated to version 1.2, and its capacities have never been higher.

The issue of emulating live socialization on VR has been of great interest for many developers over a long period of time. At the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, researchers are working into their second decade and have made a number of compelling experiments producing very interesting data. For example, the facilitators at VHIL have proved that interactive socializing in VR significantly increases learning efficiency, and that a bright smile on an avatar’s face doesn’t just make the experience more positive — it reinforces the depth of immersion.

Experimenting with VR mechanics themselves, many developers understand the social component to be an important parameter in increasing the quality of user experience. For example, this year virtual reality will make it possible not merely to visit a football match in real time, but also to share impressions with friends (Prosense, the author’s company, is developing VR for sport events broadcast — Forbes).

These days there are about ten platforms in which the possibilities for socialization have been realized, though at different levels. Many of the modern products aim not just at communication, that is, sharing impressions and hanging out with friends, but also at solving business challenges present in different industries: coordinating presentations, meetings, education and trainings.

Research conducted in 2016 by Dell, Intel and Penn Schoen Berland has shown that 57% of employees the world over prefer personal conversations with colleagues, but more than half have noted that the development of advanced communication technology might make such interactions obsolete. Millennials have shown a particular inclination for using VR/AR products at work, and 77% of the organizations surveyed have claimed they will be implementing them in the future.

Here is a brief review of some VR applications and platforms united by multi-user capacity and the opportunity for real-time communication:

AltspaceVR (which attracted $15.7 million over three rounds of venture investment) is a social communication platform allowing users to meet in VR, share materials, play games and socialize. Today it has wide functionality and is available on HTC Vive, Daydream, Oculus Rift and GearVR.

VTime (funding volume not announced) is also a cross-platform application for socialization. Very beautiful locations are available, as well as wide opportunities for avatar personalisation, adding up to a remarkably high-quality experience for VR interaction.

Cerevrum SkillHub ($1 million of seed capital) is a b2b platform — one created by a Russian company, as a matter of fact. Built-in mechanics make possible remote training sessions, business development simulations and assessments of key corporate competencies, along with live communication and socialization.

The Wave VR ($6.5 million within two investment round) is a platform for fans of electronic music and raves allowing for live DJ sets, personal mixes, drawing and, of course, socialization.

Bigscreen ($3 million within one round of venture investment) is an interesting project in which every user has a personal panel acting as a working desktop, one that is available to other users for interaction.

There are two more projects worth mentioning: Sansar by Lindenlab, creators of Second Life, and High Fidelity by the former director of Lindenlab. Both projects offer unlimited space, which can be designed both by ordinary users (using 3D-model templates) as well as by professional designers. Data storage and computing powers will be distributed among users.

Nevertheless, there are still a number of factors complicating the full use of social VR:

  • Multi-user activity in VR is quite demanding when it comes to network speed — it is difficult for systems to work with large quantities of data arriving from different sources. How can players work toward solving this problem? At this very moment, fifth generation 5G mobile networks are already being developed — in fact, such technologies are already being actively tested in Russia. Recent tests have shown results of 35g bytes/s. Of no less importance is the fact that codecs are being upgraded, with new compression formats enabling more effective transmission and reception.
  • There is still, as of yet, no ability to transfer gestures and facial expressions in high quality. Modern tracking technology nearly allows for playing the piano in VR, but it can be expensive and complicated when it comes to implementation. It is worth mentioning that the first working interface prototypes for tracking eye-movement have already been developed, but these technologies are still far from mass implementation. Nonetheless, mass-market technology is only becoming more and more accessible — HTC’s basic tracking system costs about $130, and there are, incidentally, a number of quality, Russian tracking solutions available.
  • A lack of well-developed tools. Firstly, this concerns interfaces, overly-complicated connection procedures and avatar creation. In general there is a lack simplicity. Several months ago, I personally spent forty minutes customizing an avatar in vTime. These are common problems of VR generally, and developers across the world offer various solutions. In my opinion, a good option is the one suggested by Facebook in their Oculus spaces: a neural network generating a 3D-avatar based existing profile pictures. I suppose the precision of these Facebook images will only increase with time.
  • It is not widely discussed, but there are harassment problems in VR. We can probably speak to a wider issue as well — the matter of VR etiquette and whether there will be limitations set by law. This is a completely new horizon from the standpoint of regulation, with many options being proposed. For example, it seems reasonable to give programs age-based ratings as has been done for films, thus separating child-friendly applications from more adult content. It is noteworthy that, at the present moment, legal proceedings are taking place in many countries linked with the conduciveness of certain online spaces to suicide.

If we turn back to VR market in general, the trend is evident that development is directly linked with the speed of hardware development. Observing the increasing rate of investment, on the part of the largest corporations, in hardware companies (for example, the last announcements of autonomous helmets from Google and HTC, or of 360° cameras by Facebook), it grows clear that, within a few years, the capacities available to VR technology will dramatically increase. Content developers must be ready to present the most perfect user experience — this is why producers are now concentrated on the two priorities of highest importance: the mechanics of the VR experience and perfecting the art of immersive socialization.