UPDATED: What’s Holding Social VR Back?

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Image by Pexels on Pixabay

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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UPDATED: Which Social VR Platforms and Virtual Worlds Will Benefit from the Upcoming Standalone VR Headset Oculus Quest?

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Oculus Quest.jpeg

As many of you already know, Oculus is releasing a new, standalone VR headset, the Oculus Quest, sometime this coming spring, 2019. Priced at just US$399, it is sure to be a popular option for people who are interested in VR, but who don’t want to purchase a more expensive VR headset solution like the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift.

The Oculus Rift is meant to fill the space in the Oculus product line-up between their entry-level, lower-powered standalone VR headset, the Oculus Go, and the Oculus Rift, a VR headset with Touch controllers which requires a high-end Windows gaming-level PC with a good graphics card to run. (Unfortunately, there is, as yet, no satisfactory native virtual reality hardware solution for Apple Mac users, although there are native Mac desktop clients for virtual worlds such as High Fidelity and Sinespace.)

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If the Oculus Quest becomes very popular, those social VR platforms which can run on the Quest hardware may gain an advantage over those which require a full-blown VR headset and a higher-end computer.

I think it’s safe to assume that Facebook/Oculus properties such as Facebook Spaces and Oculus Rooms (or at least some version of them) will be available for the Oculus Quest on its launch date. Social VR platforms with simpler avatars and spaces, which already run on the Oculus Go (like AltspaceVR, Bigscreen, and vTime) will probably also be available for the Quest.

Surprisingly, Rec Room, TheWaveVR, and VRChat are not among the social VR programs that are currently available for the Oculus Go ( I searched for them on the Oculus Go apps store and could not find any mention of them.) It remains to be seen if the companies behind those three products will release versions which will run on the more powerful Oculus Quest.

In a discussion thread over on the official High Fidelity user forums, HiFi CEO Philip Rosedale stated back in October:

We are definitely going to get High Fidelity running on as many standalone devices as we can, and we love the Quest. VR will not find a large audience until the Quest and other devices (like the Mirage and Vive Focus) become widely available.

Talking to Oculus about the process now… stay tuned.

When asked for to provide a more recent update, Philip added:

Yes, we are working on the Quest, and hope to have High Fidelity ready to run on it for launch! Very high quality device.

I also don’t know what Sinespace’s exact plans are for the Oculus Quest, but Adan Frisby, their lead developer, said on a Facebook comment when I cross-posted this blogpost over there:

We’ll be fine with it too – anyone doing Android support will have an easier time of it.

So it looks like High Fidelity and Sinespace will indeed both be working with the Oculus Quest, if not right at launch date, then shortly thereafter. This gives them both an advantage over Linden Lab’s Sansar, which very likely will not be able to work with the Quest. There’s still a lot of data that has to get sent to and from a VR headset to properly render Sansar experiences (especially for any experience which has global illumination enabled), which would probably completely overload any standalone headset.

As I often say: interesting times ahead! Let’s hope that the Oculus Quest makes a big splash and brings even more people into VR. A rising tide lifts all boats, and many social VR platforms would benefit from greater consumer awareness and uptake of virtual reality in general. And I promise to cover all of it as it happens on this blog!

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UPDATE Dec. 14th: Adeon Writer posted the following to the VirtualVerse Discord server (VirtualVerse is the successor to the long-running SLUniverse forums):

VRChat was just announced for the Oculus Store. While it already worked with Oculus on Steam, [the] OculusSDK version of VRChat means it will almost certainly be ported to Oculus Quest when it comes out, making it the first metaverse-style game available for wireless/unteathered/portable VR.

Thanks, Adeon!

UPDATE Feb. 11th: Since this blogpost was written, I have had someone tell me the following about VRChat:

Sadly, I don’t think VRChat’s gonna support Quest. It’s just not compatible with mobile CPUs. Hell, it brings modern up-to-date PC’s to a standstill with too many people. I very much doubt the Snapdragon 835 can handle all the custom shaders, avatars, IK, etc. The team would basically need to do a full rewrite. And that’s unlikely unless the team was way bigger.

It does sound as though VRChat would have to be pared down significantly in order to run on the Oculus Quest, if at all.

I also noticed that I have received a lot of traffic to this blogpost due to this post on the OculusQuest subReddit (which I had never heard of before today). If anybody over there has any inside information on social VR/virtual worlds that will launch with the Quest, I’d certainly love to hear about it! Thanks.

An Updated Comparison Chart of the Twelve Most Popular Social VR Platforms

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I decided to update my original comparison chart of the 12 most popular social VR platforms, according to my reader survey. Note that in this chart, I excluded platforms that did not have VR support (e.g. Second Life, OpenSim-based virtual worlds, etc.).

I also did not dwell on technical details, such as the underlying game engine, user creation tools, etc. Instead, I focused on the three things of most interest to consumers:

  • How you can access the platform;
  • What options do you have for your avatar;
  • And whether you can go shopping!

This print on this chart is a little small to show up on the constrained width of this blogpost, so I saved it as a picture to FlickrJust click on the chart below (or the link above) to see it in Flickr in a larger size.

Comparison Chart of 12 Social VR Platforms 25 Nov 2018

You can also download this chart from Flickr in any size up to its original size (1488 x 920 pixels).

If you feel I’ve made any mistakes, or left anything important out, please leave me a comment below, thanks! I do hope that people who are trying to figure out which social VR spaces to explore will find this comparison chart to be a useful and handy tool.

UPDATE 2:03 p.m.: I’ve just been informed that there is an Android app for vTime. Thanks for the tip, Stephanie Woessner!

UPDATED: A Comparison Chart of Twelve Popular Social VR Platforms

UPDATE Nov. 25th: I have updated the comparison chart! You can see it here.

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From my recent blog reader poll results, I got the following results on who has created user accounts on which social VR spaces:

The “Big Five” social VR platforms

After Second Life and OpenSim, the next biggest section of the reader responses were these five newer social VR platforms:

  • Sansar (149 readers, 8.87%)
  • High Fidelity (145 readers, 8.63%)
  • VRChat (101 readers, 6.01%)
  • Sinespace (83 readers, 4.94%)
  • AltspaceVR (68 readers, 4.05%)

Not far behind were a few more newer competitors

  • Rec Room (54 readers, 3.22%)
  • Somnium Space (53 readers, 3.16%)
  • Bigscreen (35 readers, 2.09%)
  • Facebook Spaces (29 readers, 1.73%)
  • Oculus Rooms (26 readers, 1.55%)
  • vTime (20 readers, 1.19%)
  • TheWaveVR (16 readers, 0.95%)

So, I decided to draw up a detailed comparison chart of just these 12 social VR platforms. Note that in this chart, I excluded platforms that did not have VR support (e.g. Second Life, OpenSim-based virtual worlds).

I also did not dwell on technical details, such as the underlying game engine, user creation tools, etc. Instead, I focused on the three things of most interest to consumers:

  • How you can access the platform;
  • What options do you have for your avatar;
  • And whether you can go shopping!

This print on this chart is a little small to show up on the constrained width of this blogpost, so I saved it as a picture to Flickr. Just click on the chart below (or the link above) to see it in Flickr in full size. You can also use the Flickr magnifying glass to get an even closer look!

Social VR Platform Comparison Chart 22 Oct 2018

You can also download this chart from Flickr in any size up to its original size (1656 x 914 pixels).

If you feel I’ve made any mistakes, or left anything out, please leave me a comment below, thanks! I do hope that people who are trying to figure out which social VR spaces to explore will find this comparison chart useful.

UPDATE Oct. 23rd: Someone on the Virtual Reality subReddit has helpfully pointed out this thread on the official Sansar website’s Feature Requests section, where it would appear that Sansar does now work with Windows Mixed Reality headsets. Sansar user Vassay wrote in July 2018:

After Windows 10 April update, WMR headsets work with Sansar in full scale – meaning all the benefits, including moving your avatar. Tested and confirmed on several systems already.

One thing to be weary is that Sansar works with WMR headsets through SteamVR libraries, so some updates to SteamVR can sometimes break things. But from what I’ve seen, things are mostly stable and work correctly.

Happy VR to all 😉

Also, there is an interesting comment on the discussion thread about this chart over on the High Fidelity user forums:

Clothing in High Fidelity is doable, but is limited at this time to whichever avatar is was made for, since global clothing options isn’t really a thing.

So can you have clothing in High Fidelity? Yes, and not just attachments either. Apparently Ryan forgot that Menithal’s robes are completely separate, that items made in Marvelous [Designer] do work here, or that I had a greeter uniform before all greeters got one…

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To which I would reply: Yes, technically you can make clothing for your custom avatar in HiFi (if you have the skills), but there is still no default, dressable avatar for which you can buy clothing from the marketplace, like you already can in both Sinespace and Sansar. Note that I am making a specific distinction between actual avatar clothing that conforms to your body and the simpler avatar attachments (such as hats and wings) currently offered at the in-world stores in High Fidelity.

Second Update: It turns out that Windows Mixed Reality headsets will work with any SteamVR-compatible virtual world. High Fidelity users report they can use their Windows MR headsets to navigate very well in HiFi.