Never mind the foosball table: One of the perks of working for San Francisco-based virtual reality (VR) startup HelloVR is a 24-hour campfire — a digital campfire, to be precise. It’s part of MetaWorld, the virtual world that HelloVR has been building over the past several months.
MetaWorld consists of 10,000 square miles of virtual environment, complete with meadows, trees, mountains, lakes, and yes, campfires, that will be made available to early adopters through a “Pioneer Edition” program for high-end VR headsets like the HTC Vive later this year.
Users will be able to pitch their own tents, sow seeds and harvest, go on fishing expeditions and explore a new world together, which comes complete with its own time zone, sunrise and sunset included. Or they may just opt to chat with each other, play a game of chess, or lay in the grass and relax while watching birds fly by.
HelloVR isn’t the first company looking to build a virtual world, and it likely won’t be the last. The growing interest in virtual reality has many developers looking for a third type of application between games and narrative storytelling, and social experiences that allow users to interact with each other are a natural and potentially very powerful choice.
San Francisco-based Linden Lab laid the groundwork for these kinds of experiences a few years back with Second Life, a virtual world that allowed users to style their own avatars and meet up with others in elaborate virtual houses. But while Second Life was optimized for PCs, a new generation of experiences is being built for VR headsets.
Linden Lab is one of those companies, and is currently building a virtual world called Project Sansar that will be once again all about elaborate locations, and likely give brands and others a permanent presence. Redwood City-based AltspaceVR on the other hand is putting a bigger emphasis on social experiences, and has done comedy nights and concerts in virtual reality, complete with avatars cheering stars like Reggie Watts.
MetaWorld by comparison is bare, and serene. During a demo for Variety, HelloVR co-founder Carleton DiLeo explained that some of this reduction was done on purpose. MetaWorld avatars for example don’t come with a full body. Instead, you’re represented by a floating head and two hands. “Your mind fills in the rest,” said DiLeo — and it actually does a better job doing so than VR experiences can.
That’s because VR headsets like the HTC Vive can track your position and head movement, but they don’t know whether your legs are stretched out or whether you are kneeling down. As a result, companies often resorted to stiff torsos that can move through virtual spaces, but not actually behave like your own body. Omit most of the body, and movements actually do feel a lot more natural.
Granted, social VR is still at its infancy, and HelloVR is still very much exploring how to turn MetaWorld into a space you’d want to come back to over and over again. One example for an unexpected challenge: MetaWorld is meant to be a persistent virtual world, which means that objects exists even after you leave the space, allowing you to come back and finish that chess game you were playing days earlier.
However, the same is also true for any mess you’d make. In other words: Virtual reality may just give you yet another space to clean up, or even yet another world in which you can complain about other people’s habits.
Still, virtual worlds like MetaWorld are fascinating, if only for the fact that they give people a much more natural way to interact with each other over large distances without the frequent awkwardness of a video call. And as VR matures, one can expect these types of worlds to host all kinds of entertainment experiences, from concerts to meet and greets with Hollywood stars and bands alike.
But in the beginning, it may just be a bare world, waiting to be inhabited, save for the occasional campfire.