The first time Ursula Lane-Mullins went into social virtual reality realm Altspace she witnessed a joint suicide. Two avatars appeared, whispered to one another then ran off a cliff edge.
“Then some guy goes – ‘they just committed suicide, you should try it, it’s really fun’” she recounts. “So I did it. I did that seven times.”
You can do things in virtual reality you can’t in the real world, or ‘meatspace’ as the user community sometimes calls it. You can play golf against participants from every continent in a land of floating cupcakes. One platform's ‘Australia’ domain is roamed by AI tigers. In this infinite metaverse you can soar above the clouds, swim with whales, even visit Mars.
For social VR’s small but growing population, anything is possible. The tricky part is figuring out what’s acceptable.
You’re there, and they’re there
Emerging social virtual reality spaces like Altspace, High Fidelity, VRChat and others are similar to the online virtual worlds of Second Life in their functionality. They allow users to take on avatars and create environments for those avatars to interact in and explore.
“The difference is the sense of presence, of being there yourself physically, as opposed to just projecting yourself psychologically through an avatar on a screen,” explains Daniel Sim Lind, of Sydney-based VR agency Diesel Immersive. “There’s more of a sense of you’re there. And they’re there.”
“You feel like you’re really there,” says Jaime Engel, CEO of interactive online education platform Neutopia. “It’s like entering the Matrix. It’ll be everything we saw with the internet’s impact on social interactions. It’s that but a hundred times more powerful.”
Don’t look behind you
Like any other online social space, these virtual platforms are open to all, at least anyone with HTC Vive, Samsung Gear VR or Oculus Rift headset. There are creeps, trolls and stalkers here too. The difference is you can actually hear them breathing down your neck.
Lane-Mullins, speaking with Sim Lind and Engel as part of a virtual reality panel at Academy Xi in Sydney earlier this month, describes another time she was in a virtual space with a small group, attempting to learn and play a game.
“This person came in and didn’t say anything. So you say ‘hey what’s up?’ and try and have a conversation. Immediately everyone in the space got really uncomfortable. Then a guy opposite me said – ‘don’t look behind you’. There was someone else behind me – just silently staring at me.
“I’ve had some weird experiences. It’s strange.”
Others have had more worrying encounters. Journalist Taylor Lorenz wrote in a blog post that within minutes of entering Altspace she was ‘swarmed by male users rubbing on me’. Others too have reported being harassed.
Altspace has recently added a new tool ‘space bubble’ which stops other avatars from getting too close. “Our latest feature helps bring the same social standards we have in real life into our virtual world” the company said. High Fidelity is working on anti-harassment measures later this year, but will remain, on the whole, user moderated.
“They get all in your space and you just hear a voice ‘hello’ and it’s bizarre because it’s a person just around you and it’s in 3D sound,” says Engel. “And then you turn around and they’re right there. Don’t be groping in virtual reality!”
Sealife on Mars
Despite the unwelcome interactions, all of the panellists said they had had made deep connections in social VR. Sim Lind describes a genuine friendship he had made on Altspace over a long game of virtual squash.
“I wouldn’t have gone out to the pub in that time and met a new person and made a new friend,” he says. “But I’d ended up making a human friend. Doctor Lobster his name is.”
After connecting on Steam, Sim Lind and Doctor Lobster took a trip to Mars to explore the virtual vicinity of the NASA Rover.
“I came up to the Rover and I was surprised to see this exposed wiring. I called out to this guy – ‘come and have a look’. At the time my head was a giant marshmallow, I had these big cartoon gloves on. So I saw him come over and crouch down, and look at where I was pointing with my big cartoony hands, and look up at me," Sim Lind adds.
“I was like wow – we’ve had that experience together. I feel like I’ve gone somewhere with him. I made a friend and had a genuine social experience.”
Lane-Mullins remembered a whale watching experience she had shared with another user.
“You share something that’s not entirely explainable 'back home'. The other person contacted me days later and said ‘I’m still thinking about it’. That was a very real experience for me.”
Social VR is predicted to be huge. The price of headsets – a key barrier of entry – is falling all the time. Facebook, which acquired Oculus in 2014, is backing it. In April, Facebook's CTO Mike Schroepfer shared a demo of how the company envisages social networking in virtual reality.
For now though it is still new, with a population predominantly made up of tech fans and early adopters and it is only beginning to set its community standards. Perhaps, as in meatspace, general common decency will out, despite a few bad eggs.
As Caitlyn Meeks, High Fidelity VR’s director of content, wrote recently: “We’re here at the right time and place. We get to be the ones who define the language, tone and purpose of a completely new medium.
“Reality is something that unfolds organically. Virtual reality needs to unfold in the same way.”