Where's My Oa­sis?

The Search For the Ul­ti­mate So­cial VR Ex­pe­ri­ence

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Be­fore Gun­ters were scour­ing the Oa­sis for clues in Ernest Cline’s fan­tasy gamer novel, Ready Player One, Cap­tain Pi­card was play­ing a pri­vate in­ves­ti­ga­tor on the En­ter­prise’s Holodeck in Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion.

While I find my­self cring­ing ev­ery time “holodeck” is used to de­scribe vir­tual re­al­ity -- cur­rently on my list of overused VR buzz­words -- it’s one of the places my pas­sion for the tech­nol­ogy orig­i­nated from. The idea that you could be trans­ported into a new en­vi­ron­ment and be able to in­ter­act with ob­jects phys­i­cally is the ul­ti­mate sci-fi fan­tasy. But for this to be­come a full-fledged re­al­ity, it’s go­ing to take a lit­tle more time and a lot more work. From so­phis­ti­cated forms of AI (ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence) to in­creased ad­vances in ma­chine learn­ing, there are a num­ber of stars that will need to align be­fore the con­struc­tion of the holodeck be­gins.

But what about Ready Player One’s Oa­sis?

The VR rigs de­picted in the book and the film are sim­i­lar to ones that have been cir­cu­lat­ing in­dus­try events and gam­ing ar­cades for years. Ev­ery­thing from head-mounted dis­plays to om­ni­di­rec­tional tread­mills gives the im­pres­sion that the Oa­sis could be an at­tain­able ver­sion of the ul­ti­mate VR ex­pe­ri­ence. While the tech­nol­ogy is an es­sen­tial el­e­ment to the cre­ation of this much sought af­ter world, the driv­ing fac­tor to its suc­cess will be a so­cial one.

As a so­cial species, we grav­i­tate to­wards com­mu­ni­ties -- whether they are on­line or off­line. Plat­forms like Face­book have cre­ated a so­cial me­dia or­ga­ni­za­tion around how peo­ple con­nect and have in­grained them­selves into the daily lives of their users. The video game in­dus­try thrives on mas­sively mul­ti­player on­line (MMO) gam­ing with ti­tles like Call of Duty and World of War­craft. But where will vir­tual re­al­ity land on this so­cial plane?

If we rely on pop cul­ture ref­er­ences to lead the dis­cus­sion, we could be left with fear­ful masses who con­jure up a dystopian vi­sion of users plug­ging them­selves into the ma­trix. Fear not my friends, So­cial VR is so much more than head-to-toe vinyl cat­suits and long black coats that are in con­stant dan­ger of get­ting caught in re­volv­ing doors.

Three years ago I made my first ex­pe­di­tion into the realm of so­cial vir­tual re­al­ity with the help of

AltspaceVR. In­tro­duced at the TAVES Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show, I was in­trigued by the po­ten­tial of dig­i­tal meet­ing spa­ces and how peo­ple were us­ing them to con­nect. The plat­form con­tains a va­ri­ety of vir­tual spa­ces where users from around the world can meet, play games, watch videos, and at­tend live events all from the com­fort of their own home. While I missed Drew Carey and Bill Nye when they hosted events on the dig­i­tal stage, there were oth­ers that I had the plea­sure of meet­ing. One avid Altspacer I spoke with had carved out more than just a place to play but a place where she could come alive. Suf­fer­ing from a de­bil­i­tat­ing dis­ease, she was un­able to leave her home, and that left her feel­ing ex­tremely iso­lated from the out­side world. AltspaceVR was able to pro­vide her with not only daily so­cial in­ter­ac­tions but the abil­ity to play with her kids again. Doesn’t sound like the dystopian fu­ture you were ex­pect­ing?

De­signed to bring peo­ple to­gether, AltspaceVR hosts a va­ri­ety of events, but there was one that took the vir­tual cake. Last year I had the plea­sure of at­tend­ing the world’s first wed­ding hosted in VR. The happy cou­ple from Wales opted for less than tra­di­tional nup­tials (to say the least), but whether you think this was slightly gim­micky or not, it turned out to be quite prac­ti­cal. Break­ing down the phys­i­cal dis­tance al­lowed any­one in the world to at­tend. The groom ac­tu­ally made a crack that a guest had fi­nally made it to one of their wed­dings. With­out a phys­i­cal lo­ca­tion to travel to, guests didn’t have to worry about the long lines at cus­toms, air­plane food, or hav­ing to wear pants. I’m not go­ing to lie, if I had the op­tion to at­tend some of the wed­dings I’m in­vited to via my HTC Vive, I to­tally would.

Although I did at­tend mee­tups and con­fer­ences in AltspaceVR, I pre­ferred Ru­mii when it came to my pro­fes­sional needs. Re­ferred to as ‘col­lab­o­ra­tion VR,’ Ru­mii fo­cuses on busi­ness and ed­u­ca­tion. I re­cently at­tended Merg­ing Re­al­i­ties, a con­fer­ence put on by Leth­bridge Col­lege in Al­berta and pre­sented in VR by Ru­mii. The lec­ture hall setup al­lowed the avatars to “take their seats” in the au­di­ence while the pre­sen­ter was lo­cated at the front with full con­trol of the pre­sen­ta­tion screen. I was able to jump in and out of my head­set for dif­fer­ent talks and in­ter­act with the speak­ers and other at­ten­dees. Con­fer­ences can be time-con­sum­ing and ex­tremely costly -- par­tic­u­larly when they are out of town. There­fore, Ru­mii is the ideal setup for when you want to con­tinue work­ing but also want to drop into a con­fer­ence for a cou­ple of hours to catch a talk or net­work with your peers.

Now when it comes to hav­ing fun with friends in VR, there are a num­ber of games, ex­pe­ri­ences, and plat­forms to try. Much like AltspaceVR, the Rec Room vir­tual re­al­ity com­mu­nity (by Against Grav­ity) -- rem­i­nis­cent of Wii Sports -- of­fers a vir­tual play­ground with a va­ri­ety of ac­tiv­i­ties to test out. What I love about Rec Room is that by gam­i­fy­ing tu­to­ri­als/tasks it forces you to in­ter­act with other users. When I first started ex­plor­ing dif­fer­ent so­cial VR plat­forms, I found ini­ti­at­ing so­cial in­ter­ac­tions nerve wreck­ing-which is odd be­cause off­line I am a com­plete ex­tro­vert. How­ever, not only do they make the tran­si­tion into a full fledge Rec Room user easy but some of the games are down­right ad­dict­ing.

While the ma­jor­ity of VR ex­pe­ri­ences and plat­forms can be used with­out pants, I would strongly sug­gest grab­bing a pair of khakis if you’re plan­ning to test out The Void. Un­for­tu­nately, you won’t be able to give this a go at home. The Void is a whole-body, fully im­mer­sive lo­ca­tion-based VR ex­pe­ri­ence. Within the con­fines of a spe­cially de­signed stage, The Void in­cor­po­rates a

com­bi­na­tion of hard­ware with mo­tion track­ing, hap­tic feed­back, and spe­cial ef­fects that al­low users to ex­plore and in­ter­act with the en­vi­ron­ment. It might not be the Holodeck, but it sure is get­ting close to the Oa­sis. When this im­mer­sive theme park was an­nounced at the Wear­able Sports & En­ter­tain­ment Toronto (WEST) con­fer­ence in 2014, I prac­ti­cally charged the stage out of ex­cite­ment. If you’re in­ter­ested in see­ing what lo­ca­tion-based VR is all about, I would rec­om­mend check­ing out this mind­blow­ing ex­pe­ri­ence with a cou­ple of friends.

Although I am op­ti­mistic about the fu­ture of so­cial VR, there is an as­sort­ment of is­sues that need to be ad­dressed. High-end sys­tems like the Ocu­lus Rift and HTC Vive don’t come cheap, and you will also have to in­vest in a gam­ing com­puter that will have enough juice to power the head­set. If you’re not an earlyadopter or com­pletely VR-ob­sessed, you prob­a­bly won’t be dolling out the dol­lars for a high-per­for­mance sys­tem.

But there is still hope when it comes to qual­ity VR ex­po­sure. With VR ar­cades on the rise, places like The Void and House of VR can show­case the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of to­day’s tech. In ad­di­tion to ex­pos­ing peo­ple to the magic of im­mer­sion, they are help­ing to man­age user’s ex­pec­ta­tions. The in­dus­try has come a long way, but we are far from act­ing out our sci-fi fan­tasies.

Well, the search will con­tinue, and it’s go­ing to take a while, but in the mean­time, I will trans­port my avatar across the meta­verse in search of the ul­ti­mate so­cial VR ex­pe­ri­ence. Maybe I will see you there?

by Stephanie Greenall

Steven Spiel­berg’s ‘Ready Player One’ Has Earned Over $500 Mil­lion World­wide; It Is Now Avail­able on Blu-ray

AltspaceVR al­lows you to hang out with real peo­ple in VR. For a list of their up­com­ing events check out https:// ac­count.altvr.com/events/fea­tured

This Co-op Quest is part of the Rec Room so­cial video game that al­lows you to team up with your friends to de­feat Jum­boTron and his army of ro­bots with laser guns. How fun does that look?

The Void of­fers dif­fer­ent VR ex­pe­ri­ences around the world, like this Ghost­busters Di­men­sion game in Toronto.

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