Oculus wants people to think of virtual reality as more than a solitary, gaming-centric experience. To that effect, the company today is launching two new features for the Samsung Gear VR headset that it hopes will encourage users to interact with one another in a virtual hangout. The first is called Parties, and it’s a simple chat system — much like game chat for PlayStation or Xbox — that lets you jump into a voice call and talk with others while wearing the headset. The second feature is called Rooms, and it’s an entirely new way of interacting with others in VR.
Rooms are essentially virtual living spaces where you and friends can spend time, chat, and interact with the objects around you. You can sit around a large virtual television screen and queue up videos from Facebook, or you can other gather around a table and play simple games with one another. By joining a Room with your friend, you’ll also be able to launch multiplayer Gear VR experiences together. Oculus wants this to be a way people can replicate the experience of being in the same physical area, even when separated by a long distance. In the event you want to share your screen, Oculus is also launching Facebook live streaming today in conjunction with Parties and Rooms, so you can share what you’re seeing in VR with those simply browsing the Facebook mobile app.
To give you a physical presence in VR, Oculus is using a stripped-down version of its Avatars feature, first announced back at Oculus Connect in October, that displays Parties participants as colored, semi-translucent heads. The heads have circular photos beneath them, pulled from a synced Facebook account, to help denote who is who, while software simulates lip movements to bump up the realism. Using the Gear VR’s sensors, the avatars will also replicate head movements you make in the real world as you gaze around.
In my experience using Rooms this week, I was able to join a voice chat with an Oculus employee located down the hall from me, who then invited another person from London. All three of us were able to customize our avatars and then tour the virtual living room. Movement is conducted by warping around. So to go from one place in a Room to another, you hover your gaze over the destination and tap the Gear VR. All of the interactions with objects in a Room can be done with simple taps on the side of the headset, which is helpful considering Gear VR does not use hand tracking, motion controllers, or any type of remote to receive input. The avatars and activities aren’t anywhere as sophisticated as the Toybox mixed reality demo Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg showed off at Connect, but Rooms does capture the same spirit.
Overall, it was a smooth experience, though there are clear hurdles to Rooms catching on. It’s hard to imagine many people using these kinds of social experiences with VR for long durations of time. That’s both because using mobile VR for more than short gaming or 360-video experiments can be uncomfortable and the lack of widespread adoption of Gear VR means you won’t have too many friends who own it and use it regularly. Still, it’s a strong first step toward the kinds of social experiences — the ones that could take VR truly mainstream — that Oculus and Facebook are working to deliver.