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Watching Netflix in the Gear VR is great, but it's not social

Social experiences are at the core of this year's Oculus Connect. This isn't surprising — Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg bought Oculus largely because of VR's social potential. But Oculus has only recently started focusing on shared experiences. Earlier this year, it showed off a very, very subtle two-viewer mode for its short VR film Lost. At E3, its Toybox demo let two people see each other as stylized heads and hands. At Connect, it expanded on this with the Medium sculpting app for the Rift. On the Gear VR, it had something more dramatic: streaming video apps that let people watch Twitch, Netflix, and more while sitting with their friends in virtual chairs.

Oculus is following in the footsteps of many other Rift developers. Platforms like AltSpaceVR and Convrge, for example, hold group live-streaming parties for events like the Oculus Connect keynotes. On a smaller scale, there are conferencing systems like VTime, which is essentially a less infuriating, VR-based version of GoToMeeting. It's an idea that many VR enthusiasts find compelling. But it's hard to judge Oculus' efforts against any of those, because the Gear VR's social tools feel built for a specific kind of interaction I never have.

The Gear VR's video sharing seems geared towards interactions I never have

The Gear VR video demos at Connect were distinctly screens first and social experiences second. Once I put on the headset, a Samsung attendant popped me into a virtual home theater: four big leather chairs around a huge screen. It was tuned to a Twitch gaming channel, playing a low-resolution rendition of a Starcraft II game with live chat messages running down the side. Slowly, the chairs around me filled up: one with an anthropomorphic daisy, one with a disembodied cartoon face. Like most VR chat applications, our avatars reflected our head motion and indicated when we spoke. But they were too abstract and unresponsive to make me feel like I was getting to know the human on the other side. And by orienting us all facing the screen, it made clear that my attention was supposed to be primarily on Twitch.

I understand what this is supposed to evoke: the sense of being in a room with a few people you know well, sharing a football game or e-sports tournament. Simple avatars and occasional glances are fine, because you've already built a connection. The problem is that I can't remember the last time I wanted that experience. I'm more likely to watch video in large groups of casual acquaintances, where having to mingle with people is part of the point. Otherwise, I'm probably just watching movies with a partner, and "presence" is tied as much to touch as it is to sight and sound.

Gear VR video is useful because it's isolating

Virtual reality can be a social experience, but video on the Gear VR seems great because it's isolating. The Netflix app, for instance, is awkward to use — the lack of positional tracking means the room jumps around whenever you lean back, the interface's small buttons don't feel optimized for the Gear VR, and subtitles seem outright glitchy. The rustic cabin environment is a little cheesy. The headset's "screen door" effect means it's not so much a personal IMAX as a big, slightly grainy CRT. But once the lights go down, it offers something distinct and valuable. As someone who's easily distracted, just being in a state of complete focus — not having the option to check my email or clean the apartment while I watched — kept me engaged in a way that flat screens rarely do. Having another avatar beside me wouldn't have helped the experience; it might even have detracted from it.

Social virtual reality can be powerful. Sculpting in Medium, for example, feels genuinely collaborative with two people. When virtual worlds like AltSpaceVR have viewing parties, their large spaces and expressive avatars encourage casual interaction. But the Gear VR's video apps don't yet offer a compelling reason to bring other people into them. In fact, they remind us that sometimes, being an antisocial goggle-clad recluse is completely understandable.