UPDATED: What’s Holding Social VR Back?

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I was very recently invited to join a Facebook group called Cefima, which was started by the Norwegian Film School. The purpose of the group is to explore immersive narratives, and a recent post to this group alerted me to a great editorial blogpost by the Norwegian architect, 3D artist and VR designer Kim Baumann Larsen.

Titled Social VR—The Invisible Superpower, Kim talks about his recent experiences in TheWaveVR and Sansar, and wonders why they are not more popular:

This afternoon I spent an hour hanging out with legendary French electronic music pioneer Jean-Michel Jarre, and together we watched an amazing never seen before and impossible to do in real life VJ set with other fan girls and boys. It was a social VR experience in TheWaveVR and the DJ and VJ was Sutu Eats Flies, famous in his own right for his gigs on this emerging social music VR platform. You would think there would have been hundreds, if not thosuands of fans of Jarre’s music attending such an event that enabled anyone to walk up to the legend, to become virtually friends with him and to casually converse, but the instance I was in contained merely a couple of dozen of people.

Just a few days earlier in Sansar, another social VR platform, I had woken up at 4 am to catch a virtual comedy show titled Comedy Gladiators, in which comedian and YouTube sensation Steve Hofstetter brought friends and fellow comedians Maz Jobrani, Ben Gleib, Alonzo Bodden, and Mary-Lynn Rajskub into VR. There were more people at the comedy show than at the concert but not by a long stretch. While I don’t know how many instances of either shows that were running in parallel, it is obvious that whatever people are using their VR headsets for these days it is mostly not involving social VR.

With both Sansar and VRChat recently available on Steam, the latter being the by far largest platform for social VR, figures are emerging that show just how few people are in a social VR at a given moment. While Steam is not the only distribution platform for VR, there is Oculus of course and several of the apps can be launched outside of Steam and Oculus, the numbers are quite telling. On Steam this past Sunday 9 people were seen in High Fidelity, 12 in Altspace VR, 62 in Sansar, 79 in Bigscreen (Beta), 340 in RecRoom, and 8098 in VRChat.

He goes on to speculate on the reasons for this:

Ask most any one who is working in virtual reality where the future is for VR and most will say that while it is hard to speculate and give a definitive answer it will most certainly involve some kind of social VR. So why aren’t people flocking to these experiences then? The first problem is that VR gear is still rather expensive and the power of VR and of social VR in particular can’t be understood unless it is experienced first hand. The problem with that is that there aren’t many places one can experience it in public and most people doesn’t happen to have a friend or colleague with VR gear nearby.

The second problem is that we have become accustomed to asynchronous communication via platforms like Facebook, Twitter and SMS being the de facto way of communicating long distance and media-on-demand is how most people fit entertainment into their increasingly busy life. Meeting up virtually at specific days and times it seems requires too much of an effort.

And, I must admit, I myself had not thought too much about the synchronous nature of social VR and how we have as a society become more accustomed to asynchronous forms of communication like Facebook and Twitter. As for the cost, I do believe that that is only a temporary problem, as the cost of VR equipment keeps decreasing over time.

It’s an interesting take on why social VR is not attracting much attention (yet), and I would urge you to go over to Kim’s blog, KIMSARC, and read the entire post for yourself.

UPDATE Dec. 18th: Tech blogger Robert Scoble commented on a cross-posting of this blogpost to the Virtual Reality group on Facebook, raising another good reason that people don’t like social VR: the obnoxious behaviour of trolls.

I got offered a sex act within seconds of arriving in one. Most people are tired of interacting with strangers. For that reason and others.

I have blogged about this topic previously: Why Women Don’t Like Social VR. Culture and behaviour researcher Jessica Outlaw has done market research which shows that some women avoid social VR precisely because they feel vulnerable and, at times, unsafe. This is still a topic which is not really getting the attention it deserves, in my opinion.

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4 thoughts on “UPDATED: What’s Holding Social VR Back?”

  1. Meanwhile, Philip Rosedale continues to insist High Fidelity shouldn’t have text chat – and therefore, no asynchronous text messaging system either. No surprise why HiFI has the numbers that it has.

    Any platform that dismisses the need for text chat deserves to fade into obscurity.

    1. Part of why text chat is not on by default in High Fidelity (spoiler: it is installed as part of the client, but disabled by default) is due to it creating two different groups: groups who use voice chat and groups who use text chat. The issue with text chat and VR is that the two do not meld well together. While it is possible to setup an environment where VR users can read text chat, it tends to allude that users would then be able to hear voice, even if they aren’t speaking and opting to use text chat. Sadly, this again is not always the case and has been the primary argument on why text chat was never fully solidified.

      That being said, text chat isn’t just for communication. Being able to share links and information has been a desired request, which text chat does in spades, but with that all being said, nothing is stopping a user from turning chat on in the first place, just don’t expect people who are in VR to respond or fully acknowledge the messages.

  2. I think there is another take away for why social VR isn’t booming: it’s in the name. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve seen comments fly by about “I would like to come in, but I don’t have a headset.” The listed services in the article all have desktop modes, but the advertisement for it is practically non-existent. This means people end up not giving the platform a try, even if the desktop experience isn’t as powerful as the VR one. I think it’s worth betting that the most popular and successful platform will be the one to advertise both its desktop and VR capabilities.

    I think that will be an interesting thing to observe with the platforms is how they improve desktop user experiences to entice users to finally make the jump to get their first HMD, especially with the prices of the Windows Mixed Reality headsets being low. I’ve seen the VRChat’s reddit and the number of posts all about people who ended up getting Vive trackers just to enhance their experiences, and I can safely assume the number of headsets also purchased may follow in the same footsteps.

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