1 February 2016

Social VR

Friday was the second DadenU day, when each of us gets to whatever we want, as long as its within the broad range of tech and activities that Daden is involved with. My initial aim was to go in and try out some "Social VR" worlds. The plan was scuppered when a certain TV programme put in a last minute plea to borrow our DK2 headset, so all I could do was sign up, read about them, and try and get them to work with DK1 (fail). Hopefully I'll get a chance to try them out for real later in the week, in which case I'll post more, but for now here's a quick intro to SocialVR.

Most of the hype and demo around VR have been about solo experiences, whether it's playing FPS or space combat games, explorations like Google Expeditions, documentary films or cyber-sex. With a heritage in Virtual Worlds such as AlphaWorld, There.com and Second Life we've always been far more interested in 3D environments as social spaces, as well as learning spaces of course. The "socialVR" label has been applied to those VR environments which focus on having relatively large (~4 - 20) numbers of people in the same virtual space, all interacting with each others, but not confined to playing a single game or carrying out a single undertaking. Second Life with VR if you like.

Needless to say both Linden Lab and Philip Rosedale (founder of Second Life) are both active in the SocialVR space, the former with Project Sansar, and Philip Rosedale with High Fidelity. But there are also some new kids on the block. The two I've looked at so far are JanusVR and AltSpaceVR.


JanusVR describes itself as "an immersive, collaborative, multi-dimensional internet". Users are represented by very cartoony avatars, and the spaces range in 3D quality from very basic to reasonable.  What is evident from the screenshots is that the 2D web plays a very important past in JanusVR with the ability to bring web content onto surfaces within the 3D environment. Whilst this gives access to lots of ready made content it will be interesting to see how well this works as we find that reading small 2D text in VR is very hard. It might make sense for a YouTube video or Powerpoint or an image gallery, and that may indeed be where they are focussing it, but dont think about doing a Google Docs spreadsheet just yet. JanusVR also apparently has talk (audio?) and chat, customisable avatars, 3D hand gesture control (Leap Motion?) and the ability to "author content using existing 3D modeling tools, with our extended HTML and javascript".

That authoring looks very interesting and follows an HTML syntax to create "FireBoxRooms", specifying assets and then placing them in the room - with 16 room templates available to get you started. All the standard 3D asset types are available, including 3D objects, 2D images and video, sounds, particles, shaders, skyboxes, NPC avatars etc. Can't wait to have a play.

Whilst the cartoon style is not likely to win any business converts yet (and more sober avatars may be available), it certainly looks like an interesting socialVR playground.


AltSpaceVR is probably getting the most press of all the SocialVR plays. It's interesting that their tag-line shows a similar focus to JanusVR - "Experience the web, from anywhere, with anyone, through virtual reality" - it looks like it's all about the 2D web in 3D. Leap Motion or Kinect can be used for avatar control, and the system is also designed for use with normal 2D screens as well as VR headsets. Initially AltSpaceVR avatars were simple "robots" (shades of Qwak), but more human - although again cartoony - avatars are also appearing. AltSpaceVR appears to have two different elements - a professionally crafted "container" world or room, and instances of 3D content. It's not clear how much control you have over the containers (which may well just be bigger, controlled versions of the standard 3D content) , but the 3D content (which typically rezzes in a space in the room) is written using Javascript and the THREE.js (WebGL) library (which we're already using for DatascapeGL). In one really cool demo they even show editing the THREE.js content on a web based code editor on an in-world web screen, and then having the resultant 3D object/scene change each time the updated code is saved (which I suppose is what we used to have in SL!). So as a development and sharing environments for 3D "widgets" this looks like great news. And of course that has already got us thinking that if we've already got a dataviz app in Three.JS then what would AltSpaceVR be like as a collaborative 3D data viewer? Watch this space.....

The other things I really like about AltSpaceVR is their Dungeons and Dragons in VR. Using, I assume, the THREE.js 3D widget functionality, they have created a social VR space for D&D players to gather around the table and play out a D&D Fantasy Role-Playing session. It may seem odd that people would want to do that rather than putting themselves into an immersive 3D fantasy world, but tabeltop and board games are having a resurgence, and the idea of playing them in VR or virtual worlds is something I've been toying with since the early days of SL (although for me it's more likely to be Taveller, an SPI hex war classic or a proper miniatures game than D&D). So if that's the sort of thing you can do with AltSpaceVR then it might be time to junk the Unity/Oculus prototype I was working on and start work on an AltSpaceVR/Oculus version instead!

So, only a quick look, and informed by reading not doing, but hopefully I can bring you updated on what each is like to use and code for in the coming weeks.

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