Oculus and OTOY may have achieved a breakthrough in social VR functionality.
VR headset owners should soon be able to share a variety of environments and Web-based content with one another in virtual reality. For example, friends can feel like they are together on the bridge of the Enterprise, and on the viewscreen of the ship they see a list of Star Trek episodes to watch with one another.
We have yet to test all of this functionality first-hand, but we’ve seen some of it live in the Gear VR — accessing, for example, a Star Trek environment inside OTOY’s ORBX Media Player app from within the Oculus Social Beta.
The idea is that a website supporting ORBX can be embedded onto “a live interactive surface in the environment, which is broadcast to every user in the room while the host controls the browser using the gaze cursor, on-screen keyboard, or gamepad,” according to OTOY.
“Everyone can watch Balance of Terror live,” wrote OTOY CEO Jules Urbach, in an email, referring to one of the best episodes from The Original Series of Star Trek.
The son of the creator of Star Trek, Rod Roddenberry, is an investor in OTOY. That explains why his site, celebrating Star Trek’s 50th anniversary, is one of the first environments you can try with the new feature.
“When my father created the Holodeck, he hoped Star Trek fans would be inspired by a future where the material and virtual worlds blended together seamlessly, and allowed education, art and social experiences to transcend the physical,” Roddenberry said in a prepared statement. “I invested in OTOY to help further this goal and to map out the work needed to be done in the coming years and decades.”
An early version of the Oculus Social app launched almost a year ago, but it only allowed people to watch a Vimeo video or Twitch stream with random people. In March, Oculus added a friend list and trivia game so you could find people you know online and connect in a fun setting.
Unfortunately, the additions weren’t enough to encourage steady use of shared VR experiences. As a result, the Oculus Social app is frequently a ghost town. Last week, Oculus announced a series of upgrades to its social platform at its developer conference that could help push shared VR experiences forward.
OTOY’s implementation seems to have emerged from a close collaboration with Oculus. According to Urbach, the social app invisibly sideloads OTOY’s ORBX Media Player to enable this functionality. This summer OTOY joined Disney’s startup accelerator program, and as a result several Disney web sites are launching today with these environments, including Disney.com, ESPN.com, and ABCNews.com.
We’re still trying to understand how this type of functionality might be implemented more broadly. Oculus Chief Technology Officer John Carmack told us in July he was interested in the gLTF format, which OTOY supports, saying “I think most people hope that the metaverse won’t be built on proprietary media formats.” Last month I asked Carmack whether Oculus would make it possible to try out a number of VR apps in a social setting, and he responded that “I’m working on a general mechanism for this.” Is this that mechanism? We’re not sure yet, but it certainly looks like this is at least part of it.
The new functionality could be a preview of a social future inside VR headsets where owners find a limitless number of activities to share with friends. Ultimately, this announcement from OTOY looks like a step on the path toward shared VR experiences becoming a major reason people consider getting a headset.