Oculus Connect 6 Conference Highlight: Max Weisel of Half + Half Talks About Avatar and Experience Design for Social VR

This weekend, I am catching up on some of the presentations that took place at Oculus Connect 6 last week. The conference organizers have posted a handy list of all 53 presentations as a YouTube video playlist.

One of them was a “fireside chat” between Yelena Rachitsky, an Executive Producer at Facebook, and Max Weisel of Normal, the company behind Half + Half, a new social VR platform I wrote about earlier on this blog:

In Half + Half, you and your friends can swim with the fishes, glide through the clouds, play hide and seek, or just… wiggle! The avatars are simply designed but absolutely charming. (They remind me of a mixture of owls, nuns, and Teletubbies!)

The description of this video on YouTube states:

When designing for Social VR, it is important to create a positive experience for everyone. Given the variables that come with bringing strangers together with friends, how do you design with those challenges in mind? Join Max Weisel, Founder of Normal, who dedicated his latest project to tackling this head on. Max will break down how to design for joy, delight and silliness, as well as create interactions that inspire meaningful connections between everyone.

Max spends most of this video talking about the many world and avatar design decisions he and his team made while building Half + Half, especially when you encounter and interact with people you don’t know:

And in the very beginning I think, and at the start of this project, when we were first talking with Oculus, I think everyone at Normal knew the value of social VR and how intimate it feels, and how it’s not an experience you really get anywhere else. But one of the things that we really had to think about was, how do you do that with strangers? You know, what is a meaningful experience with someone you don’t know? And we looked at other social VR apps.

And I think I personally just wanted to avoid putting a bunch of people in a room to talk to each other. I think that there’s definitely value in that, but I mean, I don’t think that I’m particularly good at small talk. It’s actually kind of a lot of work, and so I just wanted to have something where I could go in, have a short, small, meaningful experience with somebody in the [world?], and maybe I add them as a friend, maybe we connect later, or maybe I just have this pleasant memory with them.

Max also shared some great pictures of earlier versions of some of the worlds in Half + Half, such as this early design for the glider experience, where you had to actually lie on the floor! (Note that you can now do this in either a seated or standing position in the actual release of the app, which is a good thing because my Oculus Rift setup is rather constrained in space!)

This is a wonderful talk and I learned a few things about designing for social VR which I didn’t know or appreciate before, so I do recommend you set aside forty minutes to watch this in full. (So far, this video has only had 231 views, which I think is criminally low for such informative content!)

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Half + Half: A Brief Introduction

Not very long ago, I wrote about a company called Normal, who is marketing a multiplayer networking plugin for Unity-based games called Normcore.

Well, yesterday Normal released a new social VR experience called Half + Half, based on Normcore, which is available for the Oculus Rift and Rift S wired VR headsets, and the new Oculus Quest wireless VR headset.

Half + Half supports cross-play between devices (that is, Quest and Rift users can meet up and play together in-world). It is also a cross-buy title; if you purchase Half + Half on the Oculus Rift, you’ll be able to play it on your Oculus Quest (or vice versa) without needing to buy another copy. Half + Half is available on the Oculus Store for CAD$16.99 (Oculus Quest page, Oculus Rift page).

According to their press kit:

Launching September 12th on Oculus Quest and Rift, Half + Half is a multiplayer game developed by Normal. The culmination of four years of Normal’s research into the VR space, Half + Half features five multiplayer experiences for players to play with friends or strangers.

Half + Half is designed with a focus on creating fun and meaningful connections between players by using real-time voice chat, expressive avatars to communicate with body language, and game mechanics designed to make you look as ridiculous as possible in real life, Half + Half is Normal’s hand-crafted world built for you and your friends to hang out and have fun together.

In Half + Half, you and your friends can swim with the fishes, glide through the clouds, play hide and seek, or just… wiggle! The avatars are simply designed but absolutely charming. (They remind me of a mixture of owls, nuns, and Teletubbies!)

Here’s a one-minute promotional video for Half + Half, which gives you a real flavour of the project. It looks like fun!

Alex Coulombe has posted a Twitter thread with mini videos showing you all the parts of the hide and seek game in Half + Half he just loves! And this is just one of the many things you can experience in Half + Half.

If you want more information on Half + Half, you can follow Normal on Twitter and Instagram, or just visit the Half + Half website. (Normal also has a separate website and a blog.)

And Half + Half has been added to my comprehensive list of social VR/virtual worlds.

Normal: A Brief Introduction

Normal is mentioned as one of the companies working in social VR in the 2019 infographic published by the San Francisco-based venture capital firm The Venture Reality Fund (which is available here).

Normal’s website essentially consists of a blog and a store selling branded merchandise. They have one product called Normcore, which they describe on their blog as follows:

If you’ve ever tried building a multiplayer game, you know it’s a lot of work. Even just getting to the point where you can pass data between two clients can be challenging. It’s so much work that many developers decide from the beginning not to create multiplayer games. We love multiplayer games and apps at Normal. Especially when it comes to VR, multiplayer turns what has the potential to be a very isolated experience, into a shared one.
 
When we started implementing our own multiplayer titles, we realized the multiplayer aspect was going to be a lot of work. Sending messages between clients, synchronizing & smoothing movement of objects, implementing voice chat, matchmaking, running servers, etc. The list piles up quickly, and there are many engineering challenges that aren’t obvious until you’re months or even years into a project.
 
We’ve spent the last three years working on Normcore, a Unity plug-in for our own internal use, implementing all the different pieces—state syncing, physics syncing, voice chat, persistence, fast serialization with versioning, delta compression, flow control, and much more. Through this process, we noticed a pattern: Everyone currently needs to implement each of these pieces from scratch.
 
We’re releasing Normcore in an effort to not only save developers time and encourage more multiplayer titles, but with the hopes of creating the best multiplayer networking plugin available. Our goal is to refine and improve Normcore until it becomes so good, you wouldn’t ever dream of writing your own multiplayer networking. You should be spending that time on your game anyway.

So, instead of a social VR platform, Normal sells a multiplayer networking plugin for Unity-based games. So it is “social” in that sense. But it’s not very interesting from an end-user point of view, so I’m not going to include it in my list of social VR/virtual worlds.