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Image courtesy of Magnopus

Virtual reality as a social experience

A defining characteristic of virtual reality (VR) is its ability to create the illusion for users that they really are occupying that environment. This represents a radical departure from traditional viewing experiences on screens - VR collapses the gap between the participant and the alternative reality they perceive.

As a result, users expect the experience to be highly interactive. Traversing new landscapes in VR may be thrilling at first, but it can make for a lonely trip. If entering a virtual reality creates the sense you are actually in that world, then you’ll want a social experience there as much as you do in ‘real’ life. 

This presents a great opportunity for the digital industry - from social media platforms to animation studios - to leverage that demand and introduce a social element to VR. And that’s what we’re beginning to see. 

Facebook recently introduced its ‘Spaces’ app, in which users create 3D avatars and interact with friends in VR. At SIGGRAPH 2018, attendees had the chance to see Quill’s “Beyond the Fence”, a computer-animated film designed to be watched by four people together on Spaces. 

Magnopus Coco

And in 2017, Coco VR - a build on the animated film of the same name - received widespread acclaim for being both interactive and social. Billed by Pixar as “social adventure”, users had the chance to explore the Land of the Dead with their friends. 

Foundry Trends previously spoke to Ben Grossman, co-founder and CEO of Magnopus, the Visual Development and Experience company behind Coco VR. He explained why traditional film experiences don’t quite resonate with audiences in VR.

“In traditional narrative storytelling, you sit down and listen to a story that I tell,” he said. “I make all the choices as to where that story goes, and in a cinema or a theatre the audience accepts that without question.

But, if you transport that into VR, the audience starts to reject it - they get frustrated and angry because they’re in an environment where they should be allowed to do almost anything, and you’re not letting them.”

By incorporating a social element, the experience feels less passive and truer to the VR environment. The ability to engage with others injects a feeling of agency that users want when they occupy a virtual world.

Skeletons in bar by Magnopus

Of course, we’re still in the early stages of creating social experiences on VR that truly mimic the interactions we have in real life. Some have noted how the avatars on Facebook’s Spaces are still very cartoon-like, which can make the experience feel awkward. 

But the recent work from the likes of Facebook and Pixar provide a window into the future of VR. As the medium becomes a more mainstream part of the entertainment industry, VR will transform the way games and films are made and experienced. 

By its very nature, virtual reality creates a different set of expectations from traditional film - and socialising in that space is a demand that is on the cusp of being met. 

Want to find out more about the ways scientists are making VR more realistic? Check out our article: Reaching true VR immersion: one blink at a time.