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October 15
2020

ISSUE

Fall 2020

Exploring the Virtual Communities of Social VR

By CHRIS McGOWAN

Hanging out in VR in VRChat. (Image courtesy of VRChat)

When many people think of virtual reality, they tend to imagine immersive narratives, interactive experiences and games designed for that medium. Others ponder VR’s potential for education, training and therapy. Another of VR’s most compelling promises is that of Social VR, in which participants hang out, chat, interact and attend events together in virtual reality. They can even watch movies and concerts.

Many are already immersing in 360-degree virtual spaces with friends and acquaintances. And many more will do it in the near future as VR quality improves and headsets become less cumbersome. Bigscreen VR and AltspaceVR are two platforms available now that offer a variety of social VR possibilities for entertainment and productivity.

In Bigscreen VR, one can hang out, play and work, or go to the movies. Bigscreen’s main focus at the moment is to provide a different type of entertainment experience: the virtual cinema. Once logged into Bigscreen, users can sit in a dynamically-lit movie theater environment in virtual reality and watch movies together.

Darshan Shankar, Founder and CEO, Bigscreen VR.

Bob Buchi, President of Worldwide Home Entertainment, Paramount Pictures.

Bigscreen VR Founder and CEO Darshan Shankar explains, “Bigscreen provides the immersion of a movie theater, since we also render a virtual world around the movie. This lets people feel like they are transported into a movie theater to watch a film on a massive projection screen, when in reality they’re sitting on their couch wearing a headset. Additionally, Bigscreen provides a social layer, enabling people to watch films together with friends and other movie fans around the world. Voice chat and avatars enable fun conversations, just like the social experience of watching a movie in a theater or living room.”

Bigscreen offers studio films that cost $4 to $5 per admission. It has studio partnerships with Paramount Pictures and Funimation (Sony Pictures’ anime division) and has hundreds of titles. It has licensed films from Paramount such as Star Trek, Terminator and Transformers films, Interstellar, Top Gun, Ghost in the Shell, World War Z and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with the pact covering multiple countries.

“We are always looking for innovative ways to engage and entertain fans, and Bigscreen’s virtual reality platform offers viewers a new way to experience films in their homes,” comments Bob Buchi, President of Worldwide Home Entertainment for Paramount Pictures. He says the studio planned to make another 100+ movies available over the course of this year, on top of an initial 35+ titles.

In addition to regular 2D screenings, Bigscreen presents 3D editions of select movies, which benefit from being shown in virtual reality. “When a person wears a VR headset and watches a 3D movie in Bigscreen, our software renders a crisp, high quality picture in each eye.” Those pictures are “perfectly aligned together, creating a 3D experience without common issues of 3D glasses such as cross-talk and ghosting. It’s subtle, doesn’t cause headaches and adds to the immersion of a film,” says Shankar. Bigscreen may also become the best home option for viewing movies in 3D because Netflix, Amazon Prime and most major streamers only offer the 2D version of feature films.

Play Dungeons and Dragons in virtual reality in AltspaceVR. (Image courtesy of AltspaceVR)

“User feedback to the 3D screenings has been particularly strong and we feel that Bigscreen offers an exceptional at-home 3D movie-watching experience,” Buchi comments. Bigscreen is now working on additional “VR Cinema” content, including a drive-in movie theater environment, and has had themed movie events like horror-movie weeks. There are also special events, such as in June when Paramount Pictures, director Ava DuVernay and Bigscreen VR partnered to bring Selma to viewers on the Bigscreen VR platform. There was a live movie screening in June and the movie was available for free that month. Bigscreen also has more than 50 free, ad-supported TV channels to watch inside the app, including CNN, Bloomberg, NBC and Comedy Central. It plans to add episodic TV, live sports and more studio deals to the platform.

Interstellar is shown in the virtual cinema by Bigscreen VR. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Bigscreen VR)

Bigscreen was founded in San Francisco by Darshan Shankar, and the beta launch occurred in March 2016. “I started Bigscreen to explore the possibilities of spatial computing and how VR/AR headsets could change the way we work, play and hangout, as I believe VR headsets could one day replace the physical screens in our lives and change how we interact with computers in our daily lives.”

The pandemic accelerated interest in the Bigscreen platform, with “an influx of many filmmakers, directors, producers and movie studios reaching out to work with the company.” Shankar says Bigscreen broke its revenue and usage records “multiple times over as people flocked to buy VR headsets and jump into Bigscreen as a fun way to hang out.”

Balloon Island world in AltspaceVR. (Image courtesy of AltspaceVR)

Bigscreen VR is compatible with major VR headsets, with PlayStation VR support coming in early 2021. Bigscreen had over 1.5 million users at the start of the year, according to Shankar. AltspaceVR is another major social VR presence and presents itself as a “new communications platform.” It hosts diverse activities, including live comedy, music events, tabletop games and both public and private events. AltspaceVR, now based in Redmond, Washington, launched in May 2015. It was purchased by Microsoft two years later.

“AltspaceVR is the premiere place to attend meet-ups, community gatherings, and live events like talk shows, open mic nights, interest-based clubs, and more. We have a busy events calendar that features a wide variety of content from people all over the world,” comments Karolina Manko, AltspaceVR Program Manager and Marketing Strategist. Users can create their own public virtual events or opt to play Dungeons and Dragons (the first major tabletop game in VR, according to the firm) and other games, surf the web or watch videos.

Continues Manko, “AltspaceVR gives people a place to connect synchronously so they can enjoy socializing in a way that’s more personal and familiar than traditional social media. In AltspaceVR you can have real-time conversations, high five or hug friends, stand around in a circle just chatting, and more. The true magic of social VR is that it gives you a sense of presence and makes you feel like you really are standing next to someone who might be on the other side of the globe.” Entertainment is a big part of the mix and “that’s evidenced by the frequency of parties, screenings, performances and talk shows that regularly populate our events calendar.”

“Our ‘FrontRow’ technology uses room mirroring to enable scaling events quickly and easily,” she explains. “This feature allows an event host to go on-air across several different instances, or rooms. This allows audience sizes to be optimized for performance on both mobile VR headsets and PC-powered VR headsets alike, ensuring accessibility and a uniform experience regardless of hardware. With FrontRow, events can easily scale into the hundreds.”

HP held an international product launch for their new Reverb G2 VR headset in AltspaceVR as part of the Augmented World Expo (AWE) in May. On the entertainment side, comedian and vocal artist Reggie Watts (who also leads the house band for The Late Late Show with James Corden) entertained AltSpacers with his eight-week show series Reinterpreted Reality, which ran in June. Watts had appeared in AltspaceVR as far back as 2015 when he teamed with Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty, Solar Opposites) for a VR comedy set while at Jashfest, the Palm Springs comedy festival. The platform has also hosted other celebrities such as science educator Bill Nye and actor/comedian Drew Carey.

“AltspaceVR also offers a place to do business, build community, network, learn new skills, and more,” says Manko. She adds that during the first few months of the pandemic, AltspaceVR saw “a large increase in outreach, as people and businesses [continued] to explore VR as an alternative to conferences, classes, happy hours, and more.” AltspaceVR is compatible with major VR headsets.

Explore the Mythical Library world in AltSpace VR. (Image courtesy of AltspaceVR)

Pokémon Detective Pikachu makes an appearance in Bigscreen TV’s virtual cinema. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Bigscreen VR)

Terminator Genisys in virtual reality is available at Bigscreen VR. (Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures and Bigscreen VR)

Hanging out with other avatars in VR. (Image courtesy of AltspaceVR)

In 2014, before the advent of Bigscreen or AltspaceVR, Graham Gaylor and Jesse Joudrey launched VRChat. Some think of VRChat as similar to a VR version of Second Life (Linden Lab’s online virtual world that launched in 2003 and mostly features user-generated content). VRChat enables the user to create worlds and custom avatars.

Inside the VRChat world, one can engage in many activities – art, games, events, classes – and even perform for large crowds. According to the company, “Since its founding … the platform has grown to millions of users and features a passionate community of creators. Using Unity and our SDK, creators can build avatars or worlds and upload them to share with others. This open-ended creativity and the dynamics of sharing in an active social environment has led to a never-ending fountain of entertaining, surprising and wonderful experiences.” VRChat claims that its community has created over 50,000 unique worlds to date.

Other leading social VR platforms include Rec Room, Sansar, Vive Sync, Wave (a social VR music platform), Neos VR, OrbusVR, Anyland and vTime (a “cross-reality” social network for VR and AR).


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