The Epic Battle For Social VR
By Charlie Fink
Pitfalls, Promises, Phones, Known Unknowns & Big Predictions
Digital products succeed because they make something we are already doing better, cheaper, faster and/or easier. The success of social media is an affirmation of the power of human connections, of belonging. This need will follow where ever our technology takes us. If people spend a lot of time on Facebook using their phone, they will want to spend a lot of time in a future social environment, whatever that means, social VR, or maybe social AR.
So what is social VR? What will we do there? Meet friends, or strangers, as you might in a massive multiplayer online role paying game (MMORPG) like “World of Warcraft”? Or playing Xbox one on one? What else? Travel? TV? What will it cost? If it’s free, why is it free? Who is going to monetize us, and how?
Games Are The Oldest Form of Online Social Media
Massive multiplayer online games (MMOGs) date back to the formative days of the Internet. The most popular of these, World of Warcraft (WoW), a MMORPG from Blizzard Entertainment that launched in 2004, has generated over two billion dollars in revenue. More than 100 million accounts have been created over the game’s lifetime. At it’s peak in 2010, WoW, as it’s known to fans, had over 12 million paying subscribers. Players can quest on their own, or form a team, elevating the social aspect of the challenges. Players like the “social discovery” that team play engenders, and bond over the games. Experienced players will tell you that they’ve met real friends in the virtual world. A massive economy developed inside the game, with advanced players selling tokens they earned to those desiring an easier, faster way to acquire special powers.
Second Life Is Social Media
The holy grail for Facebook (owners of Oculus) is not games, but something much, much bigger: A three dimensional virtual Facebook home page, essentially your virtual home in cyberspace. Social media is something everyone is already doing. With social VR, we’re going to be doing it with amazing new technology. No one really knows how this will work, but early adopters are leaving clues in places like Second Life.
Second Life, the world’s best known social virtual world, was founded by Phillip Rosedale, a young computer engineer from San Diego. It started as a role playing game, Linden World, but soon became the open ended social world Second Life in 2003. It was different from the other MMOGs, and it got a lot of attention as a result. It was unstructured. There was no goal. No competition. Users can build their own 3D domains and control real estate. Linden Labs, the game’s creator, encouraged the development of an economy with Linden dollars, a currency with an offline equivalent. Second Life made the cover of Business Week in 2006, but never achieved the financial success of a megahit like WoW.
It would be a cliché to characterize the players or residents, as they are called in Second Life, as anti-social nerds who hide behind the anonymity of an avatar. Residents, and I’m talking about the 800,000 people who log on monthly, take their Second Life very, very seriously. “People are doing everything you can imagine in Second Life,” CEO Ebbe Altberg told me. “Everything you are doing in real life, people are doing in Second Life.” The University of Texas has a chemistry lab there. A politician had a campaign office. Some even make a living there, which they earn through long hours of graphic design and relationship building. I met a Greek girl who said she makes money by singing in Second Life. The Jewel Theater performs dramas made especially for Second Life. Working within the confines of the medium, they use text instead of voice (I’ll explain why below). The residents I spoke with as I researched this piece were kind and forthcoming, enough so that I am now thinking Second Life is more of a social network that happens to be in a complex 3D virtual world.
It’s About The Bandwidth Stupid
Latency problems plague MMOGs. Put simply, all the avatars in an interaction move at different speeds, limited by the power of personal computers and their network connections. Putting several graphically sophisticated avatars in one place stresses the computing and graphics power of the servers and our PCs. Avatars lose sync. Some slow down, pixilate or just freeze. Voice communication becomes impossible due to dropouts. For this reason, Second Life is far from a graphic wonderland. They need to keep it simple to help dampen latency. WoW and the plethora or MMORPGs have better control over this because most of their graphics are being run off their local hard drive. Second Life is ever changing, yes, but they don’t have all the graphic upgrades and expansion packs that Blizzard rode to two billion dollars of sales, and a better user experience.
Social VR For The Rest of Us
Second Life paved the way for AltspaceVR, one of the VR ecosystem’s most promising companies. It’s way slicker, and simpler, than Second Life. Their engineers have made different compromises, and have no legacy engineering to hinder them. To minimize the latency issue, AltspaceVR avatars are simple, and expressions are often limited to emoticons. It’s engineers are innovating ways to keep bandwidth distributed to minimize latency. For their popular Reggie Watts event, they used a technology called “front row” to clone new “clubs” (overflow rooms) identical to the first, each with exactly fifty avatars in the audience.
Approximately 1000 people attended. Many experienced group system failures which left them stranded in the wrong part of AltspaceVR. Here’s one user’s experience:
AltspaceVR is easy to use, and they’ve studied Second Life. The importance of giving people something to do, like attend a performance by a virtual Reggie Watts, cannot be understated. CEO Eric Romo says AltspaceVR is taking a very different approach from Second Life, “The ethos of what we’re trying to accomplish is completely different. Second Life is rooted in escapism, user creation, continuing worlds, a contiguous universe that people create. AltspaceVR is a communications medium whose goal is to be natural and fulfilling where you can be yourself. We’re dedicated to designing around that thesis.”
What’s cool about AltspaceVR is that it’s naturally structured around the normal interactions you might have with someone you know, doing what you’d like to do with your friends in real life, from concerts to games to travel to television. AltspaceVR is small. Just 40 employees today. But it’s got some big name venture capital behind them, including Google Ventures and Comcast. “We’ll scale with our audience,” Romo says. “We still live in a world where only maybe a million people a month put on a VR headset.”
To prove how early it is in the game, companies are still launching major new social VR products. Seattle based Against Gravity just announced in early February that it raised five million from top tier VCs like Sequoia to expand its popular “Rec Room” social VR platform. Second Life founder Phillip Rosedale just opened his new social VR project, High Fidelity, and Second Life itself is in the final stages of testing Sansar, it’s new made-for-VR social world.
When the tide goes out, many social VR players will be revealed to be swimming naked. This is why the holoportation feature of the HoloLens exists. For social VR, holoportation may be the first of many better mousetraps. It is certainly the most seamless solution. Personally, I don’t like wearing a sweaty VR mask. I play VR games all day long and, like deep sea diving, I can only strap on the HMD for a limited amount of time. My brain and equilibrium need recovery time. I wear glasses. Did I mention I’m fat and I sweat? Is this really the state I need to be in to experience the presence of my children in social VR? I can’t help but feel we’re nowhere near the end game for social VR. The platforms are still evolving. Nolan Bushnell says we’re still in the “pong stage” of VR/AR development. Indeed, it feels like video games in the 90s, or mobile phones before the great smart phone disruption. Socializing in fully immersive VR for long periods, hours, may not be as practical as holoportation, which is much more seamless and, frankly, way way cooler.
Eric Romo of AltspaceVR isn’t buying it. “We see the Hololens as more aspirational than real, but we’re platform agnostic, so when AR has something to offer we’ll get right on it.” Still, there are a lot of smart people betting on Microsoft. Their new OS is going to be bundled into a lot of hardware coming to market later in 2017.
Below is a video of how holoportation works with the Microsoft HoloLens, which shows its potential to remake social VR, even if it’s years away. In time, we may play chess, watch television, or just chat. Pretty much everything the fully immersed, headset wearing VR social providers do, only much, much better, more comfortably, and in our real living rooms, not virtual ones. Wouldn’t it be amazing to enjoy the Super Bowl or World Series with friends in a contending city? Just don’t ask them to pass the popcorn.
“It is all about what the guys at the top of the pyramid do,” as Tim Merel of Digi-Capital says.
Four Very Big, Very Significant Known Unknowns
- The rumored big Apple AR announcement. One of the industry’s leading thinkers and consultants, Robert Scoble, thinks it may rival the ten year old iPhone in its impact.
- Google Tango is an operating system poised to shower us with AR goodies once Qualcomm Snapdragon processors reach critical mass a year from now. These new snapdragon phones, like the Galaxy 8 and the Lenovo Phab 2, are no doubt capable of something along the lines of holoportation. After all, these are phones with multiple cameras, and communications apps used by everyone. For this reason, expect the carriers to get involved.
- ODG, which licensed the patents Microsoft used to make the HoloLens, is launching its own brand of AR glasses for less than $1,000 later this year. They have a $100M war chest, and are conducting a crash program as I write this.
- Magic Leap, the retina scanning holographic wonder has collected over $1B in investments from Google, Disney and the other movie studios, but has yet to announce a product. This is a completely new, industry disrupting technology. Note that Google has not announced a more advanced platform than Daydream for Pixel. They’ve invested $400M in Magic Leap. They know something we don’t know.
If augmented reality’s momentum continues, Oculus and HTC are going to have to pivot, and not just on social VR, but on everything else. Like Second Life, they had first mover advantage, but you know what they say, the pioneers are the ones with arrows in their backs. Generally, it’s better to be a settler than a pioneer.
Charlie Fink is an executive, writer and consultant with over three decades of experience in media, technology and the intersection between them. As an avid storyteller, entrepreneur, and award winning producer, Charlie has built a career building businesses across industries. With his tenure as an executive in companies such as Disney, Virtual World, and AOL, Charlie has honed an extensive knowledge and expertise.