Gesturing at me with two robotic arms, head cocked, a sentient white-and-green robot had one question: “Does this feel like a webcast?”
No—it mercifully didn’t. It didn’t feel like a Skype call, a Google Hangout, or a webinar, either. We were in virtual reality—specifically, AltspaceVR’s virtual reality—as the company’s founder and CEO Eric Romo delivered some news at one of the more clever press conferences I’ve ever attended.
AltspaceVR is among a handful of virtual reality (VR) software companies developing for the smattering of nascent virtual platforms. The company is focused on creating a sort of virtual clubhouse space that anyone can use. This space was one such clubhouse.
Like many non-virtual press events, the virtual room was modern and sparse, with lofted ceilings and a large display on the long wall. With my left ear—Altspace renders its high-def sound binaurally—I could hear the white noise of a water feature trickling by just outside the window. About seven white-and-turquoise press robots shuffled around the room as awkwardly as we would in a physical space, but there was no open bar to save us.
During the event—among the first of its kind—Romo announced that AltspaceVR would expand to the Samsung Gear VR, the gateway drug of VR hardware. The Gear VR offers none of the specs or sophistication of its PC counterpart, the Oculus Rift, throwing its weight behind a less intimidating, more user-friendly VR experience.
The Gear VR requires only a Samsung Galaxy smartphone and a $200 headset—the rest is as simple as tapping an app. As the company tells it, the virtual event set a trio of milestones: the first PC to mobile cross-platform VR experience, complete with realtime chat, social video (we watched a clip of Steve Jobs diss the stylus), and shared Web browsing. Even one of those tricks alone might be enough to build a viable company around—even without the elaborate virtual UI and the subtle nonverbal robo-communication.”Our ambitions are a little bigger than that,” Romo explained, dismissing the idea outright with what was probably a smirk—the Kinect mapping his arm gestures couldn’t pick that one up.
“Being cross-platform has been a consistent request from our users, and we understand why,” Romo said. “Some people will choose a desktop PC-based experience, and others will prefer mobile VR, but both groups should be able to interact and feel like they’re in the same place with AltspaceVR, without compromise.”
To that end, on Tuesday, AltspaceVR also announced support for the HTC Vive—the VR headset considered by many to be the cream of the crop.
If virtual reality is going to take off, it’s going to need to outgrow gaming. Make no mistake: Virtual reality offers an unparalleled immersive gaming experience, but the handful of companies working on VR software are imagining a virtual future well beyond the parameters of rail-shooters and 4D Tetris.
If virtual reality is going to take off, it’s going to need to outgrow gaming.
As its fondness for cat videos and Rickrolls would suggest, Altspace isn’t meant to be some lifeless business communications platform. The company is banking on the idea that, much as people hang out together online in realtime social environments like Facebook or Skype, they’ll want to do the same in VR. They’ll play Dungeons and Dragons, swap viral videos, catch up, shoot the shit.
As PC VR gaming demands increasingly high-end hardware, AltspaceVR is going the other direction: ratcheting down system requirements and making its platform accessible to as many people as possible. By lowering the technical barrier to entry for a technology phenomenon with already considerable psychological hurdles, the company hopes to get as many people hanging out in Altspace as it can.
As Romo launched into the second half of his presentation, an iPhone rang. The other press attendees snickered as one hissed turn off your phone! The avatar quickly silenced the ringing from that other reality—the one out there. Not in here, where we huddled within earshot of a faux babbling brook, gazing out over our faux tropical view from the faux-faux wood interior where we’d come to hear stories about the future.
Screengrab via AltspaceVR