ThinkBoxly is the personal developer blog of Lucas Chasteen, author, programmer, artist, and always learning. Read more

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Virtual Reality: It’s All About Social

If you cringed at the word ‘social’ in the title, my apologies. I did the same thing. No, really, I did. Because up to this point, ‘social’ and ‘gaming’ (which virtual reality is definitely linked to) have always gotten together to spawn the likes of Zynga and other infamous companies which like to exploit social media platforms by bombarding the world with games that everyone is playing, so, you know, you totally should too. For the next five minutes at least, until the next fad outdates the game you just downloaded onto your smartphone, rendering all those in-app purchases lost cash.

Indeed, there are only two kinds of people in the world: those who play social games obsessively, and those who hate them passionately.

So why on earth would I be writing about the social aspect of virtual reality? Why tarnish every geek’s dream for the future with its worst and lowest exploitation—before anything has even happened?

Well…that’s exactly why.

I didn’t really need to spend those first 160 words explaining the state of social gaming. You already know about it, and already have an opinion. Probably a strong one. Likely a negative one. And I’m here to tell you that the ‘social’ in ‘social gaming’ needs to be redefined, reclaimed, and virtual reality is the force that will do it.

Back when Facebook acquired popular start-up Oculus VR following a highly successful Kickstarter campaign and devkit release, a lot of people—myself included—could only scratch our heads and wonder what on earth Facebook and Oculus alike were thinking. The two just didn’t seem to go together. But I have to admit, as time as gone on and the world has ramped up more and more in preparation for the impending full commercial release of virtual reality headsets everywhere (and from far more developers than just Oculus), the more I’ve come to realize that without the right mix of social gameplay, virtual reality will just be…lonely. Oh, sure, right now anyone with an HMD (that’s ‘head-mounted display’—get used to seeing the term, you’ll need it before long) is too busy marveling at the fulfillment of their VR dreams to notice, but you’ll notice that nobody is doing it alone. Ever since Oculus released their second development kit, which was a massive improvement over the first, YouTube has been rife with videos of proud Oculus DK2 owners not only trying out different experiences for themselves, but putting their headsets on the faces of anyone they can find that’s willing and eager to give it a try. It’s just how we humans are—cool things left to themselves are of passing interest. We need to share our enthusiasm, share our experiences, to add lasting value to something. Right now, due to the lack of officially-supported VR software and limited availability of VR hardware, most of that sharing is happening in the same room, by passing around a single headset. But what happens when Oculus and all these other promised virtual reality devices hit the market proper? Will we really want to spend all of our time exploring single-player campaigns?

I don’t think so.

Single-player VR has its place, of course, but there is a major consequence of virtual reality that will raise its head sooner or later: by making the experience of the game real, the in-game characters and scenarios will feel that much less real by comparison. When we look at games on a 2D screen, we can accept what we see as a predetermined experience. The player contributes their own variables, of course—that’s what makes it a game—but single-player experiences are one-trip story affairs with a distinct beginning, middle, and end that will play out roughly the same each time. Even recent games that do a great job at allowing for a variety of choices that affect the outcome of plots and subplots are ultimately extremely finite in their scope compared to the infinitely dynamic situations that we experience on a daily basis.

Add VR into that mix, and it’s like getting dropped on an abandoned island with robots as your only companions. There’s some semblance of interaction, but very flat and unsatisfying.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that the first thing they want to do when they put on a VR headset is look down at their hands. Well, I’ve a sneaking suspicion the second thing we’ll want to do is look up at our friends. We won’t want to go into our own, isolated virtual worlds—not for long. Sooner or later we will want to take trips to virtual worlds like we take trips to the café, or any other hang-out spot. We will want our experiences of the worlds to be as dynamic as they are realistic, to be to the mind—or, may I be sentimental, the heart—what the virtual world itself is to the eyes. The only way virtual reality can be that to a person is if there are other people. Real people.

It’s no secret that a decent percentage of the population is worried that everyone is spending too much time isolated with their technology. While mostly the argument of over-concerned older generations who aren’t really in touch with technology, there is some validity to their concerns. You may have 500 friends on your Facebook account, but how many of them do you really know? How many of them have you even met in person, never mind see on a regular basis? There is a problem with internet relationships, no doubt, but it’s not what analysts and psychologists think. Social technology is still in its adolescent stage. It hasn’t arrived yet, and so in the meantime interaction is a little awkward, prone to extremes, fads, rebellion, desperation to fit in…but it is not without end. Eventually it is technology that will enable us to have ‘normal’ relationships again—just not necessarily in the same room, or even on planet earth, or any other place in the real world. Ultimately it’s not the reality of the place that matters, it’s the depth of the connection that happens there. As technology advances to bring more and more of our real selves into virtual spaces, the more we will want to join our experiences with others, and the more we join our experiences with others, the more ‘real’ virtual spaces will become.