Attracting a Digital Crowd

Virtual reality is designed to provide immersive environments, but in the early days of this emerging platform most of the apps provide a somewhat solitary, lonesome experience.

But that’s changing rapidly as VR companies, including some key startups, develop and launch an array of social virtual-reality apps and games that create digital, communal areas that connect users from different corners of the globe.

Oculus, the Facebook-owned virtual reality company, sent a huge signal this month that social functions will play a significant role in VR when it started to let users create personal profiles and interact with others who use the platform.

That capability, offered initially on the Oculus-powered Samsung Gear VR (shipments of the higher-end Oculus Rift start late this month), includes some made-for-VR games, including Social Trivia, a title that allows for up to four competitors, and Herobound: Gladiators, a multiplayer adventure game. The company has also added a function called “Oculus Social” that lets users create their own “rooms” to watch Twitch or Vimeo streams with others.

Though Oculus is just now starting to spread its social wings, it’s not the only company targeting this area. Redwood City, Calif.-based AltspaceVR was early to the social VR game after introducing a closed beta test about 18 months ago.

YouVisit, meanwhile, has dipped into the social waters by providing users with a way to share their own VR content, while also providing a conduit for clients such as Carnival Cruise Lines, TomorrowWorld, Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, trance music DJ Armin van Buuren and Microsoft.

“One of the biggest successes seen on social platforms such as Instagram is the ability for users to not only check out photos by others, but also have the ability to upload, edit and share their own,” Abi Mandelbaum, CEO of YouVisit, said. “As we continue to build on our capabilities you can expect to see continued support for social sharing as well as consumer created experiences. This is what will make VR invaluable to the average person and allow it to grow in value in the coming years.”

AltspaceVR, which counts Comcast Ventures among its financial backers, has already established a presence on most of the key VR platforms.

AltspaceVR recently launched an app for the Samsung Gear VR, which followed beta tests last year for the Oculus Rift development kit and a developer’s version for the HTC Vive that went live last August (Vive will start shipping on April 5).

Support for the Gear VR “was a big piece of news for us,” Eric Romo, AltspaceVR’s founder and CEO, said.

Samsung, which has been bundling the Gear VR with its new S7 smartphones, hasn’t announced how many headsets have been shipped, but “suffice it to say we’ve been really excited with the way that adoption has gone,” Romo said. “When we launched [on that platform] we saw a huge push from those folks to get on the product … We now have an opportunity to get in front of a much broader audience.”

AltspaceVR has already built several social VR apps and experiences, including one-off events, a YouTube screening area, a new quiz game and Disc Golf. Though VR is in its early days, Romo said much has already been learned about how to build a solid communications experience for virtual reality, including the ability to implement verbal and nonverbal tools.

Driving revenue for social VR isn’t yet a priority. “Right now, the biggest focus is getting the user experience right,” Romo said.

But he has some thoughts on where it could go, including value-added services, in-app purchases and live events that could require users to purchase digital tickets.

Even though it’s a new competitor, Romo said he’s happy to see Oculus enter the realm of social VR.

With its entry “comes a bigger megaphone to educating people about communicating in VR and social VR,” Romo said. “We all just have to stay in our lane and excel and not so much worry about other folks.”