Let’s face it, if there is one VR category that has the most potential, the most controversy, and admittedly the most goofiness, it’s social VR.

ben smith winnick and coGuest article by Ben Smith

Ben is an active investor in VR and digital media, and is based in Los Angeles. Ben was an early Google and YouTube exec, and has founded and led multiple venture-backed video startups. Get more of his insights and interviews here.

We all have wild fantasies of running around in strange digital universes. We all want to live and breathe in virtual space. It’s the dream of all geeks everywhere. Social VR feels like it’s naturally next. And when you talk to people about social VR within the industry, everybody is really sold. But it’s one thing for all of us insiders to talk with each other about social VR being cool, and it’s another to actually see consumers embrace and use these spaces.

So far, results have been mixed at best. Even though the Rift and Vive just shipped (sorta), there is enough data within the space to talk about if it’s working, and why.

I tracked AltspaceVR, Oculus Social, and vTime five times per day over a week to get a rough sense of how many people are living in VR on average at any given time:

AltspaceVR: ~45 people
Oculus Social: ~38 people
vTime: ~20 people

Note: These figures don’t include users in private spaces which can’t be seen.

To be clear, we’re not talking about a huge number of people in the space. Remember, there is no viral coefficient at the moment. It’s hard to get my real world friends into these apps. I can’t spam my entire address book to get everybody through the door to Oculus Social. AltspaceVR supports some ‘linking’ functionality which can direct people into a particular room (see here), but it’s not the sort of snappy process we’re used to when sharing a link to a photo or video where the recipient can consume it instantly; that means that whenever I’m asking my friends to jump into one of these spaces, what they find had better be worth it.

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ben smith social vr
Looking for new friends in VR

As an active investor and advisor in the VR space, I tend to look for killer use-cases when looking at new investments. When I’ve had the honor of talking to the legends of Silicon Valley, the people who have seen these huge platform shifts before, they always talk about creating monster use-cases. When I had breakfast with a billionaire tech executive who will go unnamed, he told me he’s completely out on VR until he sees the killer use-case arise. It won’t happen for him until we figure it out.

selfie facebook social vr
See Also: Selfies in VR – Facebook Reveals Social VR Prototype

Social VR feels like the place where we’ll find it, but ‘social VR’ is too broad to be a killer app. That would be like saying ‘Games’ are the killer app for a console, but that’s nonsense; we need to find which game—the specific hyper-compelling use-case—is the killer app for social VR.

So what are the use-cases? Based on my time in the social VR universe, here are the main use cases I discovered:

  • Games and watching video together
  • Avoiding loneliness
  • Escape
  • Group problem-solving
  • And yes, bullying, and some sexual harassment

Yes, bullying is already an issue, I saw it myself inside some of these spaces. This is admittedly a problem for any online social space (not just VR) where users are pseudo-anonymous. This can combated with tools to block harassers and create invite-online space (which some of these platforms already employ), and by using real-life identities.


It has become clear that if Social VR is going to work we need a unique use-case and unique human expression. The biggest platforms enable the audience to uniquely express themselves, and use that expression to build giant platforms. From YouTube to Snapchat, we’ve seen the same formula play out time and time again. Snapchat tapped into the human need to gossip, and the platform is exploding.

The main use-case for social VR that Facebook and others are promoting: Don’t be lonely. In the cold wasteland of virtual reality, you are not alone.

But take a temperature check for a second. Do you feel more lonely or less lonely in these VR spaces?

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Exactly. We actually feel more lonely in these spaces right now.

Every time I ended my sessions in AltspaceVR, Oculus Social, or vTime, I felt slightly depressed. Like I was letting down the human race a little bit. I wasn’t uplifted or inspired. I wasn’t connected.

We all know that the magic use-case has to be out there. Take a look at China. They already have 10 million VR headsets sold. Perhaps not coincidentally, Palmer Luckey is on record saying people will begin living in VR in areas of the world where the virtual world is nicer than the real world very soon.

See Also: Ubisoft’s First Social VR Game ‘Werewolves Within’ Launching this Fall

And toward the end of my week of social VR experiments, something almost imperceptible happened. Most people would miss it. In fact, I almost skipped over it myself. I saw two complete strangers in Oculus Connect bond for a few minutes over their love of prank videos. The two guys started out quite cold and polite with each other, and then within a few minutes were laughing and cracking jokes together. It was authentic communication. A connection happened.

Wait a second, what was that?!

This puzzle bothered me for days. And sitting there having breakfast and cracking jokes with my one year old little girl, it finally occurred to me. Loneliness is answered when humans are truly seen and embraced for who they are. It is when people reveal themselves and become vulnerable that real sharing begins.

This makes intuitive sense, and it makes internet high-stakes business sense. After all, Facebook cleaned Myspace’s clock because Facebook insisted on real-life identity. At the time, that just was not done. Before you knew it, we all collectively felt safer when sharing ourselves and our personal emotion and data with.

tyler oakley
Tyler Oakley, one of the best groundbreaking YouTube stars (courtesy Twitter)

From a content perspective, the same was true for YouTube. The monotonous videos of flying over the Grand Canyon were not exciting; rather, it was this new ability for unknown people to share the deepest parts of themselves with the public that caused a stir. When I worked at YouTube, it was the videos of people sharing their hearts and souls that routinely beat out even the Star Wars and music video clips.

Now take a look at the current top VR apps. There is a common thread through the apps or 360 videos that have done well. That thread is story, empathy, and people sharing very human experiences. Chris Milk gets this idea; look at VRSE’s content—nearly every piece is about an emotional human experience coming to life.

Watch Rick and Morty Creator Justin Roiland Sketching and Riffing in VR
clouds over sidra
VRSE knows the secret to VR

It’s articles like this Fast Company piece that miss the point. Getting social VR off the ground is not about enriching the presence of the spaces we inhabit. It is about empowering humans to be even more human around each other. It’s ironic that for virtual reality to really succeed we will need to find more of what makes us human.

Over the next six months, it’s imperative that all of the major VR platforms give us an opportunity to share who we really are with each other. While counterintuitive, sharing social content today helps reveal to ourselves who we might be deep down inside. I’m craving the ability to share short 360 videos from my social VR sessions with my real life friends on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat. They will see a ‘new me’ as an avatar, but an avatar with my soul, my sense of humor, and my (many) flaws.

It’s easy to talk about creating use-cases, but it’s tough to actually execute. The social VR companies have their work cut out. If I was starting a rival social VR platform today, I would immediately:

  • Use real-life identity
  • Create content sharing features (video, image, and sound)
  • Create VR forums around identity and emotion-inspiring issues
  • Focus on pre-established friend-links

We can’t be too far away from some of these concepts, right? I’ve been impressed with the Spectacle app for Gear VR. It’s the most basic of the photo sharing apps that feature filters. To be frank, it feels pretty grade school in its sophistication level. But it’s one of the few Gear VR apps that allows people to express themselves in an easy, fresh way. That’s progress right now for VR.

I’m still very bullish that we’ll be running around in strange digital universes soon. And in the social VR platforms that take off we won’t just be running around alone, we’ll be connecting and seeing people sharing their true selves.

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  • TaxPayer

    Exciting times we live in, cant wait to watch it all play out

  • Uncivilized

    I think vr might need something bigger than a small virtual space to attract people. I’m thinking something grand like a virtual world where people can not only socialize, but shop and explore. Something like a theme park where people can do things that they can’t do in the real world. Like relax on a cloud or take a stroll across Mars…

    • Jeremy Swanson

      Eventually perhaps. A grand virtual world might feel a little empty with 20 to 40 people in it.

      It sounds like you’re talking about something like Second Life, a virtual world where people can socialize, shop and explore. Take a look at Project Sansar. They are trying to remake Second Life with a focus on VR.

  • Rick Kelsall

    Sure as shit hope you’re wrong with your touch-feely theory that we all need a VR cuddle and therefore we need more virtual campfires, avatars and sessions where we all hold hands instead of shooting each other.

    I don’t know if VR is for you really Ben. No disrespect man but you sound like you are high on estrogen and more in touch with your feminine side than most girls.

    I think you may have solved the VR lonliness equation for girls I’ll give you that. More emotion, more crying, more hand-holding I get it.

    Call me old-fashioned but I like the idea of “having fun in VR”. What do you mean by that Rick? Well you know, shooting things, playing with toys, lasers, machines, you know, the kinds of things men like to do in men caves. (not an exhaustive list).

    Wait… caves? Solitary spaces? That seems to fly in the face of your we all need to form a giant VR jerk-circle to stave off loneliness theory.

    Emotional bit: Today, I looked into the eyes of my daughters, aged 2 and 4 and saw my own handsome reflection. At that moment I knew I had to go back RoadToVR and spread the word. Spread the word that we don’t all need avatars to enjoy VR, I’m quite happy doing it in solace without hippies like you Ben invading my living room with your acoustic guitar and wind chimes ;)

    • CazCore

      nice way to go full retard

      • Rick Kelsall

        I disagree with the guest reviewer, get over it prick.

        • CazCore

          you went full retard. embrace it.

          • Rick Kelsall

            The only thing I’ll embrace is my balls in your mouth. Kaboom! Come on trot out your favourite “full retard” shit again you one-trick pony.

          • CazCore

            the fullest, most retarded person to post on this website so far.
            how old are you kid?

          • Rick Kelsall

            I don’t think age has any bearing on how stupid or sensible a person is. When you get to my age you’ll understand stuff like that.
            Some people will disagree with you from time to time. That’s going to happen throughout your life.
            You can stand there barking the word retard over and over but do you really think that makes you look like Einstein?
            It makes you look inarticulate is what it does.
            (Ask a grown-up if you get stuck with that last word.)

          • CazCore

            stop making the most idiotic 9-year-old style posts then retard.
            when you reach the wisdom level of a 12-year-old, maybe then you’ll start having a clue how to post on the internet. in the meantime, do everyone a favour, and keep your incredibly tiny-brained, malformed, proto-ideas to yourself. instead of advertising what an astounding idiot you are to the whole internet.

          • Rick Kelsall


          • Rick Kelsall

            Go fuck yourself you angry little nerd. I say what I like and I like what I say. If you get offended that’s a huge bonus.

          • Rick Kelshall

            Benjamin don’t you think it’s time you got a proper job you fat waster?

          • CazCore

            lol, and now this guy is checking my post history and commenting to me in the same retarded fashion on all the the other threads across other websites. yeah, you really sound like a mature father there. it was obvious what kind of person you are BEFORE you became infatuated with me and started google studying me.

          • Rick Kelshall

            Benjamin Rice of Cleveland TN that is no way to speak to your biggest fan. I’m going to have to take punitive action.

          • Rick Kelshall

            It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

          • Rick Kelshall

            Hey Benjamin Button have you gone into hiding? I’m very disappointed you normally like to throw the word retarded around twice a day and all that has quietened down, what’s the matter? cat got your tongue? Come on CazCore you pro game developer you let’s talk about Paramancer the future of FPS gaming.

          • CazCore

            uhhh, normal people don’t keep coming back to pointless flame wars over and over. you claimed my message was too long to read, and i left it at that. there were plenty of things i could have responded with, because “tldr” is one of the dumbest things people can say in a forum.

            then all the sudden you come back and are putting in some SERIOUS time, not only reading my posts, but reading everything you can about me across the internet. lol i guess i should feel flattered that you are paying so much attention to me.

            these kinds of things are all over the internet 24/7, and nobody else seems to care. so thanks, i guess. and keep spreading the word about Paramancer. :)

          • Rick Kelshall

            You’ve crossed the line Benjamin. I was going to let it go but you keep with the insults. You’re clearly trying to turn it into an all out war. Now you’re all guns blazing you are responsible for everything that follows.

          • CazCore

            no, i want you to go back to your life, like i’ve already done. and not keep worrying about a simple everyday ordinary comment

            you don’t sound at all like a family man with daughters to think about when you’re giving ME so much attention.

          • brandon9271

            Although he could’ve said it more tactfully I think he’s right that the biggest majority of VR users really don’t give a crap about social VR. The “killer app” for VR is far more likely to be something like, say Half-life 3, for example. Most VR users are gamers, at least for now. Maybe when price and system requirements come down grandma can take VR selfies or whatever but nobody’s dropping $800 on an HMD for VR Facebook. Let’s be realistic.

          • CazCore

            and what makes you think you have a clue what my stance is? hint: you don’t. there was plenty to respond to without taking any stance on the article.

          • brandon9271

            Relaaax.. I wasn’t attacking you, friend. Just stating I somewhat agree with his point. I’m not defending him being a dick. :)

          • Rick Kelshall

            Don’t call me a dick you little shit

      • Ben Smith

        And especially thx for defending me!

        • Rick Kelsall

          It wasn’t so much defending as giving you a virtual reach-around but hey-ho.

    • Ben Smith

      Appreciate the thoughts even if we really differ!

      • Rick Kelsall

        What a gentleman. I take it all back. Maybe social networking is the way forward for VR. So long as I don’t have to bang a tambourine round a virtual campfire and nobody will make me sing one of those songs in a round.

        • Ben Smith

          ha! I get it, Rick. You make a great point actually– solo VR is really, really important and it’s great to get away from the world. And that’s a good thing. I was mainly focused on discussing the goal of all of these social VR companies, not VR in general. Anyway, you have an awesome sense of humor, and you made me laugh out loud– appreciated

  • Charles

    Great article. Social VR definitely has huge potential- however communicating via an avatar devoid of facial expression or emotional responses is just plain odd. Oculus seem to be working on a way to add facial expressions using a Kinect style camera and strain gauges to track mouth movements. But as social VR will be driven by mobile platforms, depth cameras are likely to be constrained due to the processor demands/ bandwidth issues, battery power limitations… Now, if only there was a way to track expressions without cameras…

    • Ben Smith

      Agree, thx!!

  • DiGiCT Ltd

    Sorry Ben, i can inform you that i am in China, been using loads of these 10 million headsets being sold and they are all Crap !
    It explains why there are so many sold, but not many people have them, its a new improved version over and over again, you easy buy another to see how far it developed.
    Lots of them go for like 10-20 USD$ very cheap but also very bad design.
    I need to say that’s simply how it goes as most people here would at the most have an google cardbox self made or cheap.
    Those 10 million are not users and lots of numbers are not accurate but blown up to laverage themselves.
    Believe me or not, im here already since 2007 day in day out, doing business with many companies.

    For the social media, i also think many people are just fine as social media now is, VR can only extend some featured for it but will not blow away social media as it is today.
    Maybe over a few years it will be possible but thats going to be in AR and not VR.
    People like to meet people, bars, dancings , sports they are still important for people to meet people.
    VR is entertainment, i don’t see Social media going to be completely in VR, the “lonelyness” will always be in VR at a certain lvl, in AR its different.
    The MS hololens demo comes more near to what it will be, but we need to wait several years to reach that point.

    • Ben Smith

      Fascinating, thx for letting me know

    • Hans Wurst

      The only problem with MS’s HoloLens demos is that they are all staged and faked as fuck. It will definitely take another 5 years minimum until this becomes a viable option.

      • DiGiCT Ltd

        Correct, polished for marketing and yeah at least 5 years.

  • Social VR is that “killer app” that everyone out there is looking for. But because it’s not going to be a singular experience like a “Halo” or a “Quake” most people are missing it’s importance. Your concurrency numbers for the VR social spaces look correct ans what you would expect at such an early point of adoption. The virtual world Second Life has been going strong on its social nature for over a decade now and still enjoys concurrency numbers in the 30,000-50,000 range 24/7.

    Letting people create their own spaces so they can do their own thing is key as is creating a linking system get people there. Second Life uses a “SLurl” launch the SL viewer and put your avatar in a specific place with a few clicks. (this is an example http://maps.secondlife.com/secondlife/Snatch%20City/122/133/29)

    Of course the flip side of the compelling nature of social VR is protecting people in their groups from people that only seem to be able to find joy in “pranking”, griefing, scamming, harassment and worse. Forcing use of real life identities may help, but it doesn’t prevent people from treating each other badly when they just don’t care. Individuals need to be given the ability to mute and ban other avatars from their immediate area and report the activity to people managing these spaces at a higher level.

    I’ve already had some great experiences in the new Social VR spaces like attending live standup comedy in AltSpaceVR and running across the surface of Mars in VRChat. I haven’t seen a lot of grieving yet but without controls put in place to manage it, it will grow and sour the experiences people have and hurt overall adoption.

    • Ben Smith

      Great reply. Def will take your points into account

  • Graham J

    Thanks for the article, I largely agree except for one aspect that I haven’t really seen covered in discussions about social VR yet: Real time.

    One of the main reasons email, messaging, social networks – even the internet in general – have exploded and changed humanity is that they provide a way to rapidly communicate with a lot of people asynchronously, something that was never really possible before.

    Social VR is to social networks as phone calls are to text messaging. One allows real-time communication with at most, say, a dozen people, while the other allows us to communicate with an almost unlimited number of people simultaneously regardless of what else they might be doing at the time. The former is far more personal but severely limits when and with whom we communicate. The latter strips communication down to recorded thoughts, audio or video but multiplexes it temporally.

    For the same reason that phone calls are just another app now and used only for limited purposes by most people, I believe the type of social VR experiences you and others envision will similarly be limited in purpose. Further, if VR is truly to revolutionize communication we must find a way for it to take asynchronous communication to a new level.

    I haven’t seen that done yet.

  • Zobeid

    As a LONG time Second Life user who’s eagerly awaiting the time when Project Sansar will open to the public. . . I have some strong opinions on this topic.

    It’s peculiar that Linden Labs are so under-the-radar now, since they would seem to have an enormous lead in this area. It’s also peculiar that so many of the new entrants into this space seem to take no cues from SL and are determined to re-invent everything that we’ve already been doing for more than a decade.

    My biggest peeve right now is the directive to “use real-life identity”. I was ready to give AltSpaceVR a spin, when I looked over the terms of service and saw that they require real names and forbid the use of alternate accounts. What the hey? You know that just ruled out a big portion of the activities we’re all accustomed to in SL, don’t you? It’s as if AltSpaceVR put out a big sign saying: WE DON’T SERVE YOUR KIND HERE.

    • brandon9271

      I refuse to use any internet service that forces me to use my real name. It should be my prerogative to disclose that information or not.

  • Hans Wurst

    So what you’re asking for is actually a VR Facebook! How fitting it’s FB who own Oculus.