I was walking around Hollywood at Oculus Connect 2 on Sept. 24, 2015 when I spotted “Cymatic” Bruce Wooden carrying around a Gear VR. The phone-powered headset hadn’t launched for consumers yet but a version of AltspaceVR was already running on the Samsung phone in his hand. I popped it on my head and immediately made a few denizens of VR jealous, telling these people in other parts of the country that Oculus CTO John Carmack was just a few feet away from me in the real world. A little more than four months later I donned my own Gear VR and talked to Wooden, who was wearing his own Gear VR, feeling as if we were standing together in the same room despite me being physically in California. He was in Utah. Wooden toured me through the latest version of one of the leading cross-platform social VR experiences to date.
Altspace, a Redwood City-based startup, is one of several companies creating a social platform for VR. The startup’s brand of social extends from headsets to traditional desktop screens, allowing people to socialize in virtual space across a growing selection of devices. Today the service is available from the Oculus Store on Gear VR.
Represented as robots or cartoon-like avatars, people in Altspace participate in a growing slate of activities designed to transform VR from a lonely affair into a regular social hangout. Activities include playing Dungeons & Dragons or chess, taking in a lecture, watching videos together and performing improv. Wooden, head of developer and community relations, estimates he’s spent hundreds of hours inside the virtual community.
Too often social experiences in VR are ghost towns — not enough people are online at the same time looking to do the same thing — but the march toward broader availability and increased capabilities of services like Altspace are making inroads to populate these virtual spaces with bustling communities. Altspace offers a software development kit to create apps that are built on existing web technologies like HTML5 — that’s how games like chess were built.
I found myself giggling a lot inside Altspace with Wooden, in awe of how impressive a feat it is to have packed down the social experience to run on a phone. Sliding up or down on the touchpad of the Gear VR rotates my view around the space while looking and tapping the pad allows me to teleport from place to place. The combination allowed me to move around the space without feeling any discomfort.
As Wooden and I attempted a few games together I found myself a bit disappointed too. At one point Wooden disappeared and later, so did I, forcing me to restart my phone. Drawing a figure inside the sketch game, for example, wasn’t working for me either.
“There are a few wrinkles still being ironed out,” Wooden wrote in an email to UploadVR. “We still regard AltspaceVR as open beta, so expect rapid updates and improvements over the coming months. Some issues may be due to low battery – we notice that SDK apps and VOIP are some of the first things to suffer when battery power is low.”
Alas, my battery was very low. I finally left Altspace when my view of that reality finally went black as I spent the last of my battery. Before that, I found myself laughing like mad, processing the amount of time Wooden has spent in VR (several days of his life!) and thinking VR is a very strange place. I was chatting naturally with robots who were teleporting from place to place.
It was four months between when I first placed a mobile version of Altspace on my head to when it became broadly available to the thousands of people with consumer Gear VR headsets. The rate of improvement is impressive and four months from now people will own a great many more VR headsets from a growing list of companies. I would expect many of the kinks I experienced inside the software to be worked out by then.
Here’s a video of me chatting with Wooden in VR: