Will Social VR be the driver to make virtual reality mainstream?

Will Social VR be the driver to make virtual reality mainstream?

Say virtual reality to most people and they will probably first associate it with gaming.  Whilst gaming will indeed be popular (you only need to see the millions of VR game downloads on Apple App store and Google Play to see that), here at Freefly VR we believe it will be social VR that will make virtual reality become ubiquitous and mainstream, not just for entertainment purposes, but also for a large range of business applications.

Social VR is an umbrella term that covers any virtual reality experience that can be shared with other people either locally or thousands of miles away, in real time.  Just with any occasion where a group of people get together, the amount of utilities that social VR offers is vast.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has been very vocal about his intentions to merge social with VR after acquiring Oculus for $2 billion, in fact, they have formed a dedicated social VR team.

Here at Freefly VR we develop high quality virtual reality devices that use mobile phones and it is the mobile VR system that lends itself most well to social VR.  Firstly, by its very nature, a mobile phone is a communication device used to connect to others via apps like WhatsApp, Snapchat and Facebook.  It has the technology already required for social VR, with in-built microphones, GPS tracking and perhaps most importantly 3G/4G/WiFi connectivity.

I recently visited the talented folk at Liverpool based vTime, who’s highly sophisticated app allows people to converse with others in exotic environments which range from an underwater cove to a space station. You can present 360 photos to others, showcase work and creative projects to a team and even take selfies. It is very fun and entertaining but the business applications for social VR experiences in apps like vTime are obvious.

It is this collaborative case study that truly highlights the potential for virtual reality to be a communication tool, allowing companies to engage with customers and staff in a more exciting way, such as presentation of product prototypes to get feedback, premier draft edits of television commercials where the audience can discuss together, and host more ‘human’ meetings with colleagues saving on travel costs.

Companies will be able to host live focus groups with consumers too where guests can comment on a new fashion range or review the aesthetics of a new TV design for example.

The City of Minneapolis saw potential to use VR in its planning review process with the University of Minnesota Virtual Reality Design Lab social VR. Decision-makers set 2D renderings aside, instead donning VR headsets and walked through a proposed development.

At Freefly VR, many of our best ideas have been generated by group discussion in a shared space.  Now, businesses with offices all over the world can bring their best minds into one place without the travel costs and disruptive travel time.  Yes, there are already video conferencing solutions such as Google Hangouts and Skype, but people still travel long distances for business.  All of my important meetings are still conducted face-to-face.  Apart from the initial handshake and offer of a coffee, in theory there is no reason to, as a video conferencing allows the two-way conversation to flow as it would in a regular meeting.  But this is not enough.  With Skype, there is no direct eye contact, people are not able to express body language, very often there will be connection issues, and as the 2D image occasionally pixelates, the distance between the two parties is obvious.  Factor in group video calls, and people can end up speaking over each other as they have not noticed the subtle expressions from someone which indicates they are about to speak.

Social VR will be more conducive to effective business conversations where building up a rapport is just as important as the topic being discussed.  I am not suggesting people will stop meeting for real, but it will probably enable initial meetings, especially group meetings, and job interviews for overseas people, to be conducted more efficiently – it just means you will have to make your own coffee!

The future of social VR

Social VR is still in its early days, and there is large scope for improving the way people are represented in virtual reality.  Currently apps like vTime and Altspace use avatars to represent people.  There are thousands of different combinations you can chose from to build an avatar that most closely represents you, but they are still highly artificial looking CG characters.  It is a great challenge to have more lifelike human representations due to the limitations of mobile processing power and the billions of different faces out there.

However, on the horizon are photorealistic people you can interact with in social VR.  I had the privilege of visiting a company in Brighton called MetaPixel which houses one of the world’s most advanced human scanning systems.  105 Nikon D810 36 megapixel cameras take high resolution stills of a person from every angle, stiches the images together and a photorealistic representation of a person is generated.  Right now, those images are static, but in the near future we can expect to see service providers doing one off scans of people’s faces and those features can be mapped onto virtual mannequins in social VR.  Positional tracking technology will be able to track highly accurate body movements which can be mapped onto the avatar so body language can be just as part of the conversation as speech.

Companies like Faceshift have developed highly advanced marker less face tracking software where every facial movement is captured and translated which can be combined with your original face scan to allow interactive real human engagement.

MetaPixel is also equipped to scan large objects like cars so it is not just people that will become more realistic. Imagine a car company being able to present the features of a luxury car to a potential buyer remotely.

Whilst it could never replace the real thing, social VR could also offer live medical advice services.  Private GP apps are growing in popularity and there is no reason why these apps and social VR can’t merge. Your doctor could request you to do a blood pressure check and receive the data in real time from a home blood pressure monitor.  He or she could check your pulse via the phone’s blood sensor, comment on your lifestyle health using data from third party apps and present test results such as x-rays in a virtual doctor’s surgery that could even be themed in a way designed to relax the patient. There is also the potential for counselling and mental health therapy in social VR too.

Movie marketing companies are bound to see huge potential in the format.  For example, a scene can be recreated from a film, which you and your friends can be part of as the action takes place in front of your very eyes, as you all respond and react together (certainly the horror film genre could take full advantage of this!).  They could also create branded theatre environments where you and your friends can watch the trailer.  For example, a Jurassic Park trailer could be presented in a forest themed outdoor cinema with trigger points to activate a real dinosaur tearing the screen apart.

Educational social VR offers a lot of promise too, because it is can allow conversational teaching that existing remoter teaching cannot.  Imagine a lecture about the solar system, where you see the lecturer showing a presentation on a virtual screen, drawing on a virtual blackboard which people can zoom into, and he or she enables a 3D rotating cross section of the planet Mars to appear in front of every viewer’s lap, and the audience can ask questions by literally putting their hands up so no cross talk.  Very often, other people ask questions that you may not have considered and it is this organic flow that can structure a lecture, in a better way than a one to one presentation.

Overall, it is the social factor that will push VR into the mainstream.  Most successful technologies tend to enhance existing activities and make them better and it will be no different to VR. People have enjoyed watching movies for years – Netflix simply makes watching movies more convenient.  People will always need to travel around cities, Uber makes it more affordable.  People will always want to engage with other people, Facebook means you can engage more often. So virtual reality will need to enhance existing behaviours and with mobile VR in particular, it offers a way to close the gap even further between people.

Here at Freefly VR, we believe social VR is the most exciting genre of VR.  It brings people together and that is what VR should be about – not escaping reality, rather allow people to enjoy new realities together.

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