Welcome to AltSpaceVR – a place that can exist anywhere, and where exciting things are constantly happening. These are still early days for social VR, and AltspaceVR is at the forefront of a whole new way for human beings to connect. Earlier this week, we caught up with Bruce Wooden, aka “Cymatic Bruce,” to talk about where the space is headed.
Bruce has been a VR evangelist since the earliest days of the new VR resurgence, and is currently Head of Developer and Community Relations at AltspaceVR. We talked about the uncanny valley, the power of hands in VR, and the challenges of building a global community. (For an extended version of the conversation, check out our post on Medium.)
What’s behind the abstract design of the AltspaceVR characters?
That was a decision that we reached after lots of iterations in the beginning. The avatars started very abstract with a robot that resembled a humanoid shape. Even our latest avatars, the rubenoids, are also pretty abstract.
''We have this mantra – don’t show what you don’t know.'' @CymaticBruce on #VR design. Click To TweetOur focus is on emotional connection. We found that if we tried to represent things that weren’t tracking, in most cases it turned out to be pretty bad. We have this mantra – don’t show what you don’t know. We actually had an avatar and cheekbones and a mannequin face, and while it was a neutral expression, you got into VR and would feel uncomfortable because the person was talking but nothing was moving. There was nothing animating on the face. It was really weird.
So we end up abstracting out and really trying to reach a point where you can feel comfortable. Where within a few seconds to a minute, you feel like you’re interacting with a human being.
The other big thing is performance. We’re kind of unique in the VR space because we’re cross-platform – not only on the high-performance VR like the Vive, but also on the mobile Gear VR. So across all of those things we have to make sure that the avatars are simple enough so that when there are 70 avatars in the room that all these platforms can perform admirably. We have to make sure that it stays light and we don’t drop frames. With VR, you drop a few frames and you can ruin someone’s day. The performance bar is raised a little higher.
What do hands bring to social VR?
Nonverbal communication has been huge for us, where we can have people wave, give the Fonzi ‘eyyyy, air quotes, thumbs up… especially with Leap Motion Orion. That stuff just comes across so wonderfully. For folks to talk with their hands, it’s definitely a big add as far as making that connection and really seeing that person as another human behind behind the avatar.
What’s best about the hand tracking from Leap Motion is that it’s feeding from the actual hands from the person. It’s not an approximation but exactly what their hands are doing. People like to talk about the uncanny valley when it refers to faces, but for me, uncanny valley also refers to motion and other body parts as well.
Whenever any part of the body is not as human as you would expect to see from a human being, then all you’re doing is focusing on what’s wrong with that limb. It detracts from the entire experience, especially where communication is concerned.
After our Orion update, we were LeapspaceVR for a while. Everyone was grabbing their controllers and jumping in AltspaceVR and seeing how it worked. Lots of people playing pattycake and rock-paper-scissors.
What are some of the challenges involved in building a global community in VR?
Besides design and performance challenges, we’re always trying to find what people will like to do in VR. It’s a journey of discovery where we’re just going to try this and see if it works. Sometimes it goes well, and sometimes it goes horribly. It becomes a real challenge to find out how we’re doing events and how to maintain our community and see how those folks are being taken care of on the other side of the globe.
When you have the culture of the Internet transcribed over to VR, it gets really interesting. In the early days of our open beta, there wasn’t really a problem with trolling, disrespect of personal boundaries, that kind of thing – it was great. We thought, this is great, a lot of real-world cultural norms are being translated over. But when we released on Gear VR, it became clear that that wasn’t happening for everybody.
It’s a lot like real-world parties – you can have 20 people in the room, and everyone is doing great, and that 21st person can just ruin it for everybody. Dude, really? We were having such a good time. It’s really the same dynamic where we’re trying to figure out how we handle this in a way that doesn’t feel restrictive to users, while also making sure that people feel comfortable no matter what background, gender, whatever.
This is a continuing challenge, and the latest thing we’ve developed is the personal space bubble. You also have the ability to report, mute, or block people, and have 24/7 presence from our concierge team. We’re continually looking for more innovative ways to minimize that kind of behavior and discourage it. People have the potential to have such a wonderful time in AltspaceVR, and when it’s going well, it’s going really, really well.
What will social interaction in AltspaceVR be like in 2017?
The initial goal with AltspaceVR is to make it a really effective communication tool. Right now we’re using a phone or Skype or Google Hangouts, but down the line we’ll be using AltspaceVR because it’s the best option. It will be very interesting to see where we go from there, but that first milestone is nothing to sneeze at.
I think you’re going to see more accessible VR, and more people taking it on, and new social norms will develop. A lot of what’s happened so far is stuff that’s carried over from the real world – like when two French people meet in AltspaceVR and they have positional tracking, they kiss each other on the cheeks. That’s a real-world interaction that happens immediately and it’s super impressive.
What I expect to see is the development of some things like our emojis that pop up above your head, or the use of some types of gestures that will be native to VR. There hasn’t been a really core one that I’ve seen yet, but that’s what I would expect to see. There will be more people using VR to hang out, and there’s going to be something like what emojis are to cellphones and text messages. We haven’t gotten to that native communication format yet but I’m hoping to see that in 2017.
Join Bruce on August 11th at 7pm PT as he emcees the VR Dance Party! Register now at http://bit.ly/VRDanceParty and bring your A game.