"Forget the days of companies flying journalists to exotic locales."
"In these tough economic times, advancing technologies are making virtual events not only a less expensive replacement for physical product launches but also a superior one."
If I were writing six or seven years ago, when "virtual world" meant something more like "video game," these are ways that I might have started this piece. As of yesterday, we might get to see them dusted off for a new generation. Virtual social network AltspaceVR has announced support for Samsung's Gear VR headset, an obvious move for the company, which currently runs an open beta for PC headsets like the Oculus Rift DK2. In a less obvious move, it made the announcement inside its own virtual network.
The Gear VR version of AltspaceVR is now in closed alpha
Like the avatar-based business meetings that once generated publicity for Second Life, AltspaceVR's Gear VR announcement is based on the premise that simulated face-to-face conversation can be a better communication tool than chat rooms or live streaming. Instead of broadcasting a video of founder and CEO Eric Romo, AltspaceVR arranged a fireside chat between his avatar and a dozen journalists, all of whom were using the Gear VR app that Altspace hopes to launch "as quickly as possible." Unlike the OnePlus VR video keynote, AltspaceVR uses an actual interactive space, and founder and CEO Eric Romo (probably fairly) calls it the first virtual reality launch event.
Reading coverage of '90s virtual reality experiences and '00s Second Life events has made me hyper-conscious of how modern VR coverage will come off a decade from now. Because technology writing is often less about what tech does than what it could do, reading old journalism is like looking at mirror universes that never actually came to pass. If VR becomes part of our daily life, AltspaceVR's event will sound prescient. If VR fails or stays niche, it'll sound quaint. Either way, the experience is surprisingly powerful.
A PC-based rendering of AltspaceVR's main hall and giant chessboard.
AltspaceVR wants to be the same kind of social network as Second Life, a place where people meet to play games or watch YouTube videos with each other. But it focuses more on capturing subtle social cues than letting people create new worlds. You can make an avatar track your every move, but you can't pick its clothes or even make it look human.
AltSpaceVR's conference hall is a simple wooden room with bright windows and a waterfall outside the door. For now, the network eschews customizable bodies for stylized metal robots whose dinner-plate eyes light up every time the user talks. Romo, who is using a PC with a Kinect sensor, gets the luxury of arms. The rest of us look like svelte, hovering bullets, tapping the Gear VR trackpad to shoot forward foot by foot — it's the only press event where I've had to apologize for phasing through another journalist. Romo is seeing the more advanced PC world above, where avatars can have different shapes, colors, and names. In the simplified Gear VR rendering, everything but our voices is identical and anonymous.
After everyone spends a few minutes doing practice laps, we assemble a ragged circle and wait for Romo to start. He pulls up a slideshow on the wall-sized screen behind him. "There's words that people often use to describe virtual reality," Romo says. "The thing we hear all the time is 'bite-sized' — it's consumed in three- to five-minute chunks." He's talking about an ethos that's been heavily promoted for mobile headsets like Google Cardboard, where processing power is limited and motion sickness is a constant danger. AltspaceVR, by contrast, likes to tout the long hours people spend watching e-sports or playing Dungeons & Dragons.
It's the only press event where I've apologized for phasing through another journalist
Around the room, invisible keyboards clack softly, as we all take notes on laptops we can't see. Someone's phone starts ringing. Since we're identical silver robots, I have no idea who it is, but we all shush them anyways.
AltspaceVR only opened to the public a few months ago, and the Gear VR rollout will probably be slow. The company will soon start taking applicants for a closed alpha, which will let people access the same world through AltspaceVR's mobile app. The announcement is coming only a week before Oculus Connect, where we've seen hints that new mobile VR announcements are nigh, so it's not clear how these will affect the rollout, or if they'll change what Altspace is able to offer.
Midway through the conference, I decide to move a little closer to Roma. In reality, I knock my head against some drywall while I'm trying to turn.
The sound of invisible keyboards fills the air
One of the central elements of AltspaceVR is its in-world web browser, where people can run simple apps or pull up YouTube videos. Another is the positional audio that lets noise fade as you walk across a virtual room. Romo promises that both these elements have been preserved, although the rooms themselves have been stripped down to the simplest possible geometry. "The water that I see out there is slightly different than the water that you see," he explains. "Social interaction is more important, we think, than the environment you're in." The water I see is a flat slab that shifts to give the illusion of movement.
As Romo continues, his arms begin to dance at angles that no human body has ever achieved. They coil above his head like a science fiction hairpiece. The motion tracker has gotten confused. He shakes them back into place and continues.
Right now, mobile VR works within a set of hard constraints. The Gear VR drains smartphone batteries quickly, and it can't offer motion or positional tracking. Kinect glitches notwithstanding, natural body language is one of the most valuable things that AltspaceVR has to offer — it's what truly sets it apart from a virtual playground like Second Life, where every action and expression is a discrete command. Unfortunately, there's no simple way for the Gear VR to capture this. On the other hand, installing a Gear VR app is far more user-friendly than getting an Oculus Rift development kit to work consistently. It's more likely to draw in people who are curious but not already dedicated to the platform.
AltspaceVR is making peace with an unrealistic virtual reality
Productive "virtual business" usually takes place over chat or email sessions, for good reason. But technology launch events aren't information sessions; all the details go out in a press release almost immediately. They're supposed to offer an experience that's worth writing about, a sense of the people behind the company. Virtual reality, which remains purely visual, probably isn't much better than watching the live stream of a glitzy company keynote. But it's a boon to companies like Altspace, which would normally forgo an event altogether.
When Romo's done talking, we journalists all crowd in for a question and answer session. The end result isn't functionally different than typing questions on a live stream chat. But it genuinely feels more intimate and informal, like walking up to the stage after a speech. After he's gone, a few people stick around, teleporting around the waterfall and virtual shrubbery. Four of us accidentally jump to the same square, briefly merging into a piece of glitch art. Elsewhere, an avatar's head has disappeared.
But when I start talking to another writer, his robotic body shifts in a way that's strikingly human. I can read the little signals that show someone is paying attention, not just faking from behind a screen. Talking to empty space has rarely felt so comfortable. For all the talk about VR's ability to transport you anywhere on Earth, there's barely any connection with our physical world here — something AltspaceVR seems to have made peace with, in the short term. But in its own way, it's still very real.