Virtual Reality is becoming a truly social space

Facebook’s New App makes VR inclusive for business or pleasure

In 2006 one of the first alternate virtual societies, Second Life, made the cover of Business Week. But, as is often the case, expectations greatly exceeded reality. By the end of 2007, both businesses and users had turned away from the virtual world. But despite the limited success of the first virtual communities, developers are at it again. The aim? To create virtual hangouts in which content can be seamlessly shared between users. Initially, VR doesn’t look like the ideal candidate for social experiences. You put on a VR headset, you enter a virtual environment, and you view a virtual experience. The process is entirely personal, immersing the individual user in an alternate reality. However, as VR spaces transition into digital communities, this is beginning to change. So, how will virtual communities disrupt our social interactions, and who are the main companies to watch?

Virtual dinner parties
You probably haven’t attended a virtual dinner party – yet. But with the rise of shared content within VR, the development of Second Life-esque worlds is heating up. Nowhere is this trend more apparent than in Spaces, Facebook’s beta app for VR. Ever since their 2014 Oculus acquisition, the company has been gradually adding content for virtual experiences. In 2015, for instance, the site began to support 360 video. Mark Zuckerberg is a staunch believer in the power of VR, deeming it ‘a new communication platform’. Spaces appears to be the next step in Facebook’s VR campaign, and could answer some of the biggest criticisms leveraged against virtual reality technology.

Instead of existing in your own private bubble, Spaces connects Facebook friends in an online hangout. Sharing virtual content is nothing new, but Spaces wants to become the most popular and accessible way to do so. Users interact as avatars, grabbing and poking virtual objects. The extent of what you can actually do in the app is somewhat limited at present, but according to head of Social VR, Rachel Rubin Franklin, the goal is to facilitate and strengthen social connections rather than bombard users with extra content. Other major companies like Microsoft are pursuing similar ventures too. Even Linden Labs, the creators of Second Life, are working on a bigger, better world called Sansar. Although the market is fuelled by some influential players, CCS Insight estimates that VR sales will drop considerably. Undeterred, Zuckerberg has publicly announced that Facebook will invest a further $3 billion in the technology.

What is the disruptive potential of social VR?
Communal virtual environments have the potential to turn VR into a social medium rather than an individual experience. This addresses the major criticism that Virtual Reality is an isolated experience by adding the ability to share content. This use of virtual content could disrupt the nature of digital social and business interaction, encouraging the combination of digital and real environments. Instead of scrolling passively through a news feed, users could find themselves on a virtual beach, or even skydiving with their friends. Familiarising so many people with VR is bound to spike adoption, and could also help to encourage the technology’s application in workplace environments and the domestic sphere. The more comfortable people are with virtual technology, the more likely it is that they will find and deploy relevant solutions. This, of course, will help to shift the stigma that Virtual Reality is reserved for gamers, developers and technology enthusiasts. This could, in turn, help VR companies to respond to the challenge from Augmented Reality.

All in all, social VR looks like an advantageous move. However, the technology has to deliver a quality service, or consumers will fail to see the point. And as most apps are currently only available in beta, it could be years before we experience social Virtual Reality as its creators intend us to.

Combine Virtual Reality with the biggest social network in the world, and suddenly VR doesn’t seem so isolating. Experiencing an event, environment or occasion at the same time as your friends is the next best thing to being there with them, which is the entire point of social media. Facebook’s Spaces, as well as a number of other virtual communities, are bridging the gap between the digital and real world. Of course, getting business partners and quality content developers on board is vital if these companies want to avoid Second Life’s initial failure. But, if Zuckerberg puts his money where his mouth is, you could be hosting a virtual dinner party sooner than you think.

Can Spaces encourage VR’s adoption in the mass consumer market? Will social VR answer criticisms about isolated virtual experiences? What challenges stand in the way of virtual communities? Share your thoughts.