A New Kind of Social Network

Hello, unlikely reader! If you are here to read a college student’s hot takes on social VR, particularly as pertaining to a new VR @ Berkeley project tentatively called Metavs, please read on.

I call this project a social network — as opposed to a game — because it has no set goal or storyline, and its primary purpose is to connect people.

My original idea was to create a multiplayer, Tiltbrush-esque app where users could live together in a giant, collaborative virtual art piece.

Then, a few friends and I got really excited about an idea for a special type of artwork: a simple functional programming language for spells based on drawing runes. Here, “spell” refers to the physical effect of a rune.

Runes are composed of basic elements represented by simple shapes, and visual characteristics like line intersections and colors change the effect of a rune. A rune can be applied to an object to enchant (or, if you prefer, curse) it.

The functional paradigm makes this idea different from other programmatic spell systems like Codespells or Psi for Minecraft by making spells completely modular: runes can be used to create larger runes. We envisioned a world where users compiled their runes into tomes, the equivalent of code libraries that others could use without knowing what’s under the hood.

Runes have the potential to be used in four different ways:

  • Combat, using pre-prepared runes, runes drawn on the fly or a combination of both
  • Collaboration to solve puzzles or overcome challenges
  • Entertainment — creating and sharing visual or interactive experiences (like a carnival ride, performance art piece, or escape room)
  • Decoration, to create animated or interactive elements to a drawing (like a cool night light for your room)

Designing a world like this means encountering many paradoxes and tradeoffs. Here are some that have been puzzling me lately.

  • Abstraction vs. Fidelity: What makes an XR interaction compelling? Is it microexpressions? Hand gestures? Real or simulated eye tracking? Limb movement with inverse kinematics? In my opinion, too much importance has been placed on realism. After all, humans have no problem interacting while wearing masks or sick shades. I want to determine which basic mechanics are truly necessary to foster emotional connection, teamwork, and creativity.
  • Emergence vs. Structure: How can we allow communities and activities to emerge naturally while still providing enough goals to keep people interested?
  • Aesthetics vs. Creativity: How do we maintain a coherent, beautiful aesthetic and insert our own design ideas while also allowing users to fully express their creativity? In other words, how do we make it easy to create beautiful things?
  • Open-Source vs. Proprietary: Should runes have some sort of built in obfuscation (for example, functionality depending on the order things are drawn, or spells that are combined by multiplying prime numbers, so they cannot easily be separated)? Or, should they be able to be copied and spread virally? Can open-source and proprietary runes coexist?

I think college students are in a unique, valuable place when it comes to creating a VR social network like this. With that in mind, here are a few principles I want to focus on:

  • Atmosphere: Let’s make this place feel like the chillest kickback you’ve ever been to. To do this, I want to draw on the vaporwave / surrealist / liminal space aesthetic that unites the internet.
  • Escape: Our generation values self-care. Spending a few hours adding to your happy place could be an effective way to calm down or cheer up. And it would be a powerful experience to allow a friend into it, or to visit theirs.
  • Talking to strangers: I’ve become extremely close with internet friends I’ve never met in real life, and I know plenty of other young people have had similar experiences. I’m fascinated by the social structures and hierarchies that emerge online among strangers, and I think it’s necessary that this platform create new relationships, rather than just connecting IRL friends.
  • (Dis)embodiment: Everyone in VR talks about embodiment, but what about disembodiment? What are the effects of invisibility and more abstract bodies on social dynamics and the way we experience the world?

I’m looking forward to finding a kick-ass team and getting started on this — I want us to start user testing and iterating as soon as we can. If you actually read this far, you’re awesome and we should talk more about this stuff. Hit me up on Facebook or something. Seriously.

Some embroidery-inspired concept art.