When I opened my eyes I suddenly found myself in an art gallery that had been transformed into a full-blown party with thumping music, bright red helium balloons pulling at the furniture, and a menagerie of life forms, humanoid and fantastical, chatting and flitting about.

This guest article comes from Chris Madsen who has been eagerly exploring the developing Social VR scene. Chris graduated from the University of Utah in psychology and has worked in the mental health field for almost 20 years. Throughout his career he has been been paying close attention to how digital technology has impacted individuals, communities and society at large. Chris has also recently co-founded the Salt Lake City Virtual Reality Meetup.

I spotted the champagne table and meandered towards it through the crowd, being careful to avoid bumping into anybody. Amused that the creators had allowed my avatar to initiate a drinking motion, I quickly slammed a few gulps chuckling at the absurdity of what was all around me.

Guests continued to teleport in; a demon, a space woman, anime characters, an invisible man, robots, a shark, a zombie, Hunter S. Thompson’s doppelganger with smoke trailing out the end of his cigarette, and even a man with a piece of fruit for a head. At one point there was a commotion and I noticed people turning their attention upwards as a large dragon entered the room, walking about on its hind legs as though trying to be human. I counted 52 avatars, the most I’d ever seen sharing a virtual space.

The room full of zany avatars was part of an event in a social virtual reality platform called VRChat. The creators were marking their first anniversary of development and celebrating ‘Social VR’ at large. Later the virtual party would migrate to JanusVR and Riftmax Theater, two other well-known platforms in the Social VR scene.

So what exactly is there to celebrate when it comes to Social VR and what makes this unique form of interaction deserving of a party? After all, we’ve been communicating digitally now for decades—how is this different?

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Virtually Incorrect with Gunter is a live talk show held in virtual reality.
Virtually Incorrect with Gunter is a live talk show held in virtual reality.

For starters, traditional online interaction is viewed through a screen which is—at best—like looking through a window into a digital landscape. With a VR headset, such as the Oculus Rift, however, the scene is presented in a way that makes users feel as though they’ve stepped through the window into the space beyond; you’re no longer an observer but a participant in a space that feels real, it takes online social interaction to a whole new level.

Explorers become immersed or present inside the virtual environments which appear to exist all around them in three dimensions, regardless of which direction they’re looking. Virtual objects are sensed as though they have mass and take up space, becoming real enough that participants will duck, dodge, and grab as they attempt to engage with the digital environment—quite amusing for spectators grounded in the real world. It’s this feeling of being present that makes social interaction in virtual reality so unique.

My first experience of social presence in VR was in Riftmax Theater, which at the time was a collection of virtual theater spaces where groups of people could socialize and watch movies together. When the first person approached me to talk, I was nearly convinced I could reach out my hand to touch him. His avatar felt so real even though it was far from photorealistic. As he moved closer I found myself keenly aware of the distance between us, stepping backward to avoid awkwardly violating his personal space. I asked permission to get close to examine his face and was particularly drawn to the avatar’s eyes. I felt I could sense the intelligence within the digital body, even though he wasn’t speaking at that moment.

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road to vr live roundtable discussion video recording
In 2014, Road to VR held a live roundtable discussion in virtual reality with participants from around the world.

An important element contributing to feeling the presence of a person in VR is the ability to effortlessly and naturally bring nonverbal communication into the mix. Dr. Albert Mehrabian, author of Silent Messages, concluded through several studies that 55% of communication is nonverbal. Fortunately for us, the very nature of a virtual reality head mounted display allows even the slightest head movement to translate accurately to the avatar, allowing for nonverbal head cues to come across with ease. Head movement is so convincing that Convrge, another Social VR platform, simply uses floating heads, in place of avatars, to surprising effect.

Headtracking alone conveys much: knowing where a person’s attention is focused, if they are in agreement or not, if they are paying attention, clues to their emotional state, and the powerful ability to look directly at a person’s face, increasing the connection one feels with others.

While headtracking is essential, it’s not enough. To embrace the full spectrum, eyes, mouth, arms and hands will need to be part of the experience. Progress in these areas is being made right now as pioneering developers strive to fully replicate the human experience—at a consumer price point—within VR. Full body tracking of torso, limbs, and hands is anticipated to be in the hands of developers and enthusiasts within the year, and handtracking is already being captured by devices like the Razer Hydra and Leap Motion.

Sophia Madsen plays live in Riftmax Theater with the Razer Hydra motion controller strapped to her hands so her avatar's hands would mimic her strumming. The virtual world Second Life has been used extensively for virtual performances.
Sophia Madsen plays live in Riftmax Theater with the Razer Hydra motion controller strapped to her hands so her avatar’s hands would mimic her strumming. The virtual world Second Life has been used extensively for virtual performances.

As an owner of the Razer Hydra myself, I can say that seeing my hands in front of me for the first time was a pivotal moment. Mesmerized, I waved them about my face, slowly opening and closing my avatar’s fists. I ran to a virtual mirror and gave an impromptu speech to myself while gesturing with my hands. It made a world of difference in bringing life to my avatar. With these tools we can act out our intentions so naturally that it would make playing a round of virtual charades a breeze.

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Deep immersion can be convincing enough to our brains that we can experience feelings and behaviors just as we would in real world interactions. I’ve noted that people will leave empty seats between themselves and a stranger out of respect for personal space, form circles when communicating as a group, take extra time to walk out of exit doors when one could simply hit the ‘escape’ key to exist instantly, and making—or avoiding—direct eye contact with fellow virtual explorers. Even speaking in front of an audience of avatars can weaken the knees and quicken the pulse, should one be prone to stage fright.

To be present with others inside a virtual space is what makes Social VR surprisingly different from any other form of remote communication, and it’s as close to person to person interaction that I’ve ever experienced, even when the avatar I’m speaking with has a piece of fruit for a head.

That’s is why 52 guests gathered together from around the world in a virtual space to celebrate the magic of Social VR: a platform which allows for social bonding through facilitation of shared experiences that are logged into our memory banks as having occurred physically in a real space with real people via the presence producing medium of VR.

Road to VR will continue to cover the development of Social VR and events within this space. If you want to get involved with the Social VR community, there’s no better time than now, with several free platforms and events being held throughout each week. Check out VRChat, Riftmax Theater, AltspaceVR, Convrge, and JanusVR to get started.

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  • joaquinkeller

    May I add this one to the list: DiveReal.com
    You can send your avatar anywhere on the planet (actually streetview) and chat with others.
    a screencast is available here: https://share.oculus.com/app/divereal

    Disclaimer: I am the main developer of DiveReal

  • Scott Nebeker

    Chris, this is amazing. It’s over a year old and I’ve experienced the same things in Gunters Universe. I’ve asked to step closer to examine an avatar. I’ve even said my goodbyes and moved out of sight before logging off. You’ve nailed everything.

    I’m just sorry I’ve only just now read this. It demonstrates that there are absolute constants we, as social creatures, will probably never get rid of.