Social interaction in virtual reality remains a big question in the industry, but one app, Convrge, might shed some light on what's to come, and help reach a more casual audience.
The worst part of a party is walking in.
There's always that one moment where you look around for a familiar face, someone to wave at, or a few people to latch on to, thinking, "I hope I run in to someone. Quick."
This was me on a Thursday night in April attending a meetup group for the first time.
That fleeting wave of dread was unexpected, fast, and followed by this revelation: social anxiety is alive and well in virtual reality.
And therein lies the wonderful weirdness of social in VR. Despite the fact I was "standing" in front of a fantastical nighttime campfire in the woods, designed in a low polygon-style, looking at a few clusters of avatars including more than a few Pikachus, in a setting contrived from pixels, basically, my brain bought the social situation as real.
That feeling's been a recurrence in the past couple weeks as I've been spending time in an app called Convrge.
Convrge is a newcomer to the social VR space, and the product of Shawn Whiting and Hayden Lee. They met at Virginia Tech and now share an apartment in Nashville, Tennessee where they both live and work.
That night, sitting on my living room floor at my coffee table, I scanned around and happily heard, "Hey, Erin."
You can pretty much depend on running into one of them if you drop in Convrge. They keep an eye on who's in the world, and if they see a name they don't recognize, they'll say hello, which is exactly what happened the first time I set a figurative foot in Convrge.
It was the night before I was supposed to meet up with Whiting for an interview. So, there I was, slowly venturing out from the campfire with the help of my keyboard. I found Convrge's cinema (an outdoor amphitheater-esque clearing in the woods with a screen used to play YouTube videos) and a group of avatars watching, laughing, and chatting. Before long, Whiting turned up.
He introduced himself the same way I'd see him do the next afternoon when another first-timer logged on shortly after I did.
As much as people fear the supposed isolation that tech like virtual reality will introduce into society, that quick, very human interaction--a greeting and a short tour, the same as you might get visiting someone's office--is the kind of smart, intuitive injection of regular interaction that could propel VR onto the faces of skeptics.
I say this because my track record of being weirded out by social interactions online goes back a decade and a half.
Having been in middle school and high school in the late 90s and early 2000s, I was at a time and age when, in the minds of my parents and many of my friends' parents, instant messaging and chat rooms equated to swimming around in a scummy tank of potential predators.
The queasiness has abated over the years. Between the journalism professor who forced my class to make Twitter accounts in 2009, to the bizarre experience of meeting and striking up future grad school friendships through Facebook--I remember questioning myself for hitching a ride to a beginning-of-semester clambake with a bunch of kids I had literally never met--I got over it. Digital social interaction is an inevitability now.
For the less adventurous folks out there, the ones who probably wouldn't hop into Second Life or participate in a Twitter chat, they could probably walk into Convrge without setting off any major tripwires of discomfort.
This has a lot do with the work Lee and Whiting have put into the app and the way they interact with it themselves. They designed Convrge to look friendly. Whiting, who grew up in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, drew on his love of nature.
"I just wanted to create a nice, welcoming space that was relaxing, where people could talk--and for me that's always been out in nature next to a campfire," he said.
He thought about how some of the best, most meaningful conversations he'd ever had took place under those circumstances.
From a literary standpoint, the woods are a scary place. They're dark, deceptive, and dangerous, but also alluring. Just ask Hansel and Gretel. Or Little Red Riding Hood. Or Snow White. Or Lysander and and Hermia from Midsummer Night's Dream. Or Bilbo and the dwarves from The Hobbit. You will get your butt lost if you go in there.
That's why you need a clear path in.
Speaking of Tolkien, Whiting also really loves Lord of the Rings, and specifically a section of The Hobbit where Bilbo and the dwarves stumble on a bonfire and torches in Mirkwood. After he and Lee decided to tackle what would be Convrge, there came one night in December 2014 when Whiting pulled up Spotify, hit play on the soundtrack to the Lord of the Rings extended editions, and designed using game engine Unity for the next 10 or 12 hours.
"I woke up and I think I just had a post-it note on my keyboard that was like 'Go look at my computer,'" Lee said.
Convrge includes a treehouse, a dancefloor, and a lounge, all richly-colored, whimsical, and especially lively when there are avatars floating around.
Because people wander into common space, they have an easier time finding other people to interact with--like the pair of German guys who randomly met and now host a meetup night of their own with about 30 members. Or, the guys interested in VR and psychology who ran into each other and ended up swapping contact info.
Sometimes, people aren't even there to be social. One day not long ago, Whiting and Lee noticed an avatar face-down (really, headset down) by the campfire. He'd been there a while and it looked as if the owner had stepped away from the keyboard.
Whiting went up to him and asked him if he was okay, or if he'd like a tour.
"I saw him rustling and putting the headset on and he turned to me and was like 'Oh, hey, sorry, I'm just at work and I just wanted to be by the campfire and listen to the crickets while I was working because I find it really soothing and it helps me get work done,'" Whiting said.
Though the app is new, it's already built a core group of users, most of which are VR developers and enthusiasts. There's a standing meetup night on Thursdays with clusters of avatars, nodding, fidgeting, standing around talking about everything from the metaverse to problems with Android Lollipop to whether anyone had managed to successfully pre-order the HTC Vive HMD.
Or, even other VR apps.
"Don't do Big Bear Ride," one user cautioned.
"Nothing can make me motion sick," responded another.
"I beg to differ, go try Big Bear Ride. That game almost made me puke," said a third.
If you're feeling gutsy, you can find Big Bear Ride through Oculus Share, which is Oculus' platform for apps. If you've been on the Share homepage lately, you might've noticed Convrge featured there.
In the week after the feature, Convrge had about a 1000 downloads, Lee said, and subsequently, a consistent flow of people checking it out for the first time.
Growing a virtual community
Expansion feels inevitable.
It's not just Lee and Whiting who are mindful of what growth could mean for Convrge. That same Thursday meetup stretched way into the proverbial wee hours of the morning, and a handful of regulars stuck around talking about what might happen to Convrge if too many other people come in.
More people means a dilution of the core group. But, that doesn't have to be a bad thing. Lee said there's a lot of homogeneity--male gamers between 20 and 40. The truth is, at the moment if you're visiting Convrge, it's probably because you're either a developer or enthusiast. Folks have a lot in common right now and tend to get along.
Though, the real problems start when users don't want to play nice. Or someone decides to throw something obscene up on the cinema screen--Whiting and Lee are already prepared and have developed IP banning for repeat offenders.
There's even the basic problem of how to gel a range of users including kids and adults.
Plus, as Lee said, no one really knows when Oculus will release its consumer version. Growth could not only happen rapidly, but unexpectedly.
"I don't think that there are many times when you're starting a new thing, when there's going to be this massive launch and it's all going to happen at one time, and go from [the VR] community of probably tens of thousands now to millions, in a couple months," he said.
So far, the plan they're batting around for Convrge uses Reddit as a model. If you visit the homepage, it's pretty safe. From there, it's up to you which subReddits you visit. They'd like to keep the main Convrge space as welcoming as possible, in part so people don't login to random empty rooms and bail, or, log into some serious NSFW content.
But if users can create their own spaces, Whiting and Lee would prefer to leave it up to them what they do there. And that plays into Whiting and Lee's hope to give users plenty of opportunity to self organize and customize within Convrge, including the avatars they use and the different subjects they decide to discuss.
Acclimating to social in VR
With VR, there's often talk of a "killer app"; it's the one that easily convinces everyone that yes, they need this in their lives.
Recently I talked with Karl Krantz, the founder of the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality meetup group. He thinks that killer app will be social. That makes sense. So many of our best and worst habits and interests are the ones we pick up from and push on our friends.
It's partly for that reason that Convrge is also available through desktop. You don't have to use Oculus Rift to visit. You can download the Windows or Mac version and run the 2D version from your computer. Whiting said they've had a handful of cases where users have purchased an Oculus DK2 just so that they could visit Convrge in virtual reality, instead of through the desktop.
A panel of folks from industry publication Road to VR spoke in Convrge on a Sunday afternoon in late April. Over the course of the event, 120-140 people logged in.
For folks who wouldn't be otherwise able to attend an event like that, the fact that they're attending in virtual reality starts to become less important than the fact that they're attending the event in the first place.
"You just log in on Saturday and [the speaker] gives you a presentation, you talk to him, and you go back to hanging out with your family the second after you take your Rift off," Lee said.
At Facebook's F8 developer conference this year's, Mark Zuckerberg laid out the evolution of the social network. He charted out the network's shifting focus from text, to photo, to video, and then eventually to VR, indicating that social and VR will merge in the future. But, as the industry still questions what exactly social could look like in virtual reality, the best place to get a clue might just be Convrge.