As my blog becomes more and more popular over time, I often receive questions from my readers about social VR and virtual worlds. In many cases, I think the questions—and my answers!—are worth sharing, so I have decided to start up a brand new category of blogposts, tagged “Ask Ryan“. Every so often, I will post a query and attempt to provide the best, most comprehensive answer I can.
Hi Ryan, I came across your website while researching Zoom alternatives. I don’t own a VR headset (although I would very much like to) and neither do many of my friends. I think we all agree that while Zoom is serviceable as far as work meetings are concerned, it’s a terrible option for social hangouts. In my mind, the issue of proximity is key. At a real party, multiple conversations can take place simultaneously. People are able to focus on one speaker by using proximity. The use of avatars seems like a pretty obvious fix. The question is: which app/software is doing this best already? Most of my friends aren’t gamers or techie types, so they would probably be turned off by anything in a highly stylized graphic environment. They also don’t own VR headsets and ease of use is critical. I’d like to just be able to text then a link or ask them to download a free app on their phone to make it work. I’ve been searching high and low for the ideal app that meets these criteria but just can’t seem to find it. What would you recommend? Thanks for your help!
Glad you asked, Gavin!
One non-VR platform you should definitely look at is the new High Fidelity*, which is a two-dimensional flat-screen app with three-dimensional audio that is perfect for your needs! You and your friends will probably have to use headphones or earbuds to really appreciate the spatial audio, which I’m sure you already have. The sound also falls off as you move away from the speaker, allowing you to break off into small groups and have many smaller conversations taking place at once. Here is their website, where you can learn more about the product.
There are certainly many other virtual worlds you have a non-VR mode which could use for socializing, such as Second Life, Sinespace, VirBELA, etc., but they are not as quick and easy to use as these three platforms I have mentioned. Second Life, in particular, has a notoriously steep learning curve compared to the simplicity of Jel, Mozilla Hubs, and the new High Fidelity.
*not to be confused with the now-shuttered social VR platform High Fidelity, which required a high-end virtual reality headset connected to a Windows PC with a good graphics card
Jel (which bills itself “the un-Zoom”) reminds me of cross between Mozilla Hubs, Minecraft, and Remotely; it’s a created-on-the-fly social VR space/virtual world like Hubs, in a landscape vaguely reminiscent of Minecraft, and much like Remotely, it attempts to put a fun spin on remote collaboration between members of a workteam (in other words, the marketplace currently dominated by products such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Cisco Webex).
The Jel website is disconcertingly spartan when you first visit it; all you are asked to do is enter the name of the workspace you want to create (you don’t even have to set up a user account or password!).
Once you get into Jel, you are presented with a windowed look into a blocky, Minecraftesque landscape, which appears to be procedurally generated on the fly:
Pressing the Shift kay and spacebar simultaneously widens your view somewhat, to take advantage of all the real estate on your computer monitor (as far as I can tell, this is not an app which supports virtual reality):
The idea, like so many other YARTRVA (Yet Another Remote Teamwork Virtual Reality App) on the marketplace, is that you can invite your workmates to join you virtually from wherever they happen to be located around the world. Press the / key to pull up the Create menu, which allows you to create a floating page of text, upload an image, video, PDF, or 3D gITF model, or link to an image, video, PDF, or model on the internet.
The Jel website appears to set a cookie so that, the next time you sign in, you are automatically returned to your originally created workspace(s). You can invite your teammates to join you by sending them the URL of your space. You can chat with each other using your microphones (just like Hubs), and you can work on projects together.
Earlier this year, I left my team at Mozilla to start something new. Five months later, I’m excited to share the news that Jel is now live for people to come try out. You can create a Space, or join the Jel community Space to check it out. As with all new web-based software, this is just an early version. This first version of Jel will hopefully be enough to kickstart connections with early adopters to refine Jel into something they love. If you want to join the conversation, join the Jel Discord.
Greg makes a few observations, based on his previous work experience at places like AltspaceVR and Mozilla Hubs:
First, while Social VR apps are ostensibly focused on creating social presence with VR headsets, the vast majority of users have great success with traditional laptops, phones, and tablets. It seems to me that avatar chat, not VR, is the core thing that people benefit from. VR is a compelling, but non-essential, way to create this form of social presence. 3D avatar chat tools are nothing new, but the Social VR space that grew in the wake of the Oculus acquisition paved the way for a wider exploration, and also led many to believe that billions of people would soon be meeting up as avatars.
Another odd thing is that the people I saw actually using these apps, the power users, had totally different preferences than the people proposing workplace or other “mainstream” use-cases for them. This latter group almost never became power users themselves, no matter how many features we built that they asked for.
…if you look at the avatar chat apps that people are actually hooked on, they are filled with whimsical or cute avatars, diverse, fantastical scenes, and, in some apps like Hubs or Anyland, a rich canvas of ways to share and mix media with one another with little structure or rules. They’re nothing like a boring conference room with floating human heads in seats and slides up on a projector screen, yet that’s the experience it seems like so many of these virtual meeting tools are trying to deliver.
This was the design philosophy behind Jel: that remote workteam apps should be more like video games like Minecraft, instead of Zoom:
[T]he most controversial claim I’ll make in this whole post that seems true is that once you start using avatar chat to regularly meet with people who “get it”, you’ll ditch videoconferencing, because it sucks in comparison. Being on camera sucks, talking to a little grid of blurry faces sucks, and not seeing other people’s body language but having them act like you do sucks. And it’s all completely unnecessary if you just meet in a video game instead.
In the post-COVID world, an intuition that videoconferencing does indeed suck for remote work has taken hold, despite the logic telling us that it should work just fine. I won’t get into the details here, but research supports this intuition. However, few teams take that intuition and act on it. If they did, they’d discover that meeting in a game like Minecraft or Hubs can be much, much better, as long as the team isn’t primed to reject it as a silly idea, as many do.
Greg goes on to say:
Jel is designed to be the first always-on, persistent tool for avatar chat, like Slack and Discord, but for 3D virtual spaces.
– You can keep Jel running in the background all day without it becoming a battery or CPU drain. – Switching between 3D worlds is fast: one click, with no loading screens. – When you switch worlds, you’ll find everything just how you left it. Objects, environments, and your last position are all persisted. – Jel tries to always run smoothly, regardless of your device.
Jel can live in a browser tab or be installed as a standalone app. When you switch to something else, it runs quietly in the background, consuming less resources than a typical text chat app. It sets the graphics quality to a level that ensures that no matter if you have a high end GPU or basic laptop graphics, it feels smooth and responsive.