In the physical world, virtual reality may isolate us, transporting us to a completely different environment. However, it's this ability that also allows us to create new experiences with friends, be it on the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, PS VR or Google Daydream.
Untethered from the confines of our physical world, social VR platforms allow us to fully embody our digital personas. You're not just playing a second life; you're jumping into a second life.
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Social VR is still young, as companies are starting to figure out how to best match up people and let them have a grand virtual time. So what exactly are the differences between them, and which world is the best for your needs?
Altspace is best described as the grandaddy of social VR. It launched back in 2015 when social VR content was extremely lacking, taking the basic idea of something like Second Life and transporting it to VR.
Like many of these social spaces, you create your own digital avatar to hang out with people from around the world. When you're socialising with your fellow human people, you can do two major things. The first is to, well, play some games, with over 30 different activities including things like Holograms Against Humanity (get it?), listening to music, playing disc golf, exploring virtual spaces and more.
The other big feature, and one of Altspace's biggest draws, is the events. Like your own community centre, Altspace throws events every couple of days ‚Äď sometimes a couple of times a day ‚Äď so that the community always has something to do. This includes things like open mic poetry, meditation events, tabletop gaming, or even an improv night.
There's a great variety of events to attend, and the community itself has grown strong in the past couple years. So strong, in fact, that celebrities like Bill Nye, Drew Carey and more have stopped by Altspace for talks with the community.
Altspace VR has had financial trouble, however, as its freemium model hasn't been able to make enough money to keep things afloat. Luckily, earlier this year Microsoft acquired the company and promised to keep it afloat while also keeping it platform agnostic, which is one of the best features of Altspace VR. It works with alsmost every VR platform out there, from HTC Vive and Oculus Rift to Gear VR and Google Daydream. You can bet Windows Mixed Reality will be in the fray. Though there is one place you can't play: PlayStation VR.
Platforms: Oculus Rift/Gear VR/HTC Vive/Google Daydream
It was inevitable that Facebook would get into the social VR game after buying Oculus back in 2014. We saw that effort this year in Facebook Spaces, which is available in Early Access for Oculus Rift.
Facebook Spaces obviously taps into your Facebook account to make VR social. Your digital avatar is created with your Facebook photos, for instance, though be warned: it won't have legs. You can then hang out in a virtual playground. You can have more of a 3D background if you wish, but you can also use 360 video and photos to create your digital space. For instance, if you have a 360 photo of your office space, you can use that as your backdrop. If you have a 360 video of a boat ride through the Amazon river, then you can do that too. Or you can go to the moon or hang out in a digital field. Whatever floats your boat.
Once you set up all of that stuff, you can go live on your Facebook page and let your friends drop in and watch what your avatar is up to. You can even grab comments and reactions to read them or respond to them. And of course, you can always video call your buddies with your digital avatar if you like.
You can draw things in Facebook Spaces too, which will turn them into digital objects you can interact with. Unlike Altspace, Facebook Spaces is limited to your friends and followers on Facebook. Within the VR space itself, you're limited to four people. This isn't some big digital world you're going to get lost in; it's more personal, but feels more physical.
Platforms: Oculus Rift
This social space has a lofty goal: it wants to re-imagine the internet, and internet webpages in general, as collaborative digital spaces filled with avatars. JanusVR is also one of the few social VR spaces that requires, well, a little work.
That's because Janus is focused on getting you to work with other people to create things. For instance, you can partner with friends and use the built-in editor and create in real time. Once you're done building your own space, you can post it to the community and get feedback. There's even Janus Markup Language, which you can use to code your own objects and spaces.
If you're the type of person who wants to build things in social VR, tinker and then post your creations to others, getting feedback and making a creative loop, then JanusVR is worth a look-in.
Platforms: HTC Vive/Oculus Rift
While Janus requires some work, VRChat is trying to find a bit of a middle ground. You'll still create your own virtual space, which you can customise to your liking ‚Äď like a home. Then you'll be able to invite your friends round so that you can hang out together in your home.
It's actually a little bit like The Sims, except with real people who have created digital avatars rather than little AI creatures you trap in a pool and slowly watch die. You don't have to stick to your virtual world either, as you can hop over to someone else's humble abode if you choose.
Once you're in these spaces, you'll be able to indulge yourself with a couple of different activities. There's a presentation room for talks and videos, a disc world arena for you to play battle discs and even a capture-the-flag arena for you to get stuck into. But that's not all; there's also virtual karaoke and events to partake in, like open mic nights, though VRChat doesn't have the clout of something like Altspace ‚Äď yet.
HTC Vive has become an investor in VRChat, so it's possible that the company will help VRChat grow even further in the future. By the way, VRChat is built by people who don't have a centralised office. VRChat is their office, and they want the social space to become something good enough for both work and play. There's even a VR pub for after work activities.
Platforms: HTC Vive/Oculus Rift
Adults have Facebook Spaces and Altspace VR to play around with, but what about young people? Where can they go to have family friendly social VR? Nickelodeon is hoping to fill that gap with SlimeZone VR.
The experience is an open world one, but it also allows kids and parents to interact with each other in VR. This way, you're not just letting them roam around in a virtual world, you're keeping an eye on them too.
As kids explore SlimeZone, they'll be able to bump into their favourite Nickelodeon characters. The activities include a shooting gallery, a movie theatre where you can watch classic cartoons, a basketball court where you can play super cartoony basketball, and an art room that's basically a kid version of Tilt Brush. Oh, and of course, there's the opportunity to splash your friends with Nickelodeon's iconic green slime.
Nickelodeon has only demoed SlimeZone VR once thus far, and there's no telling when the company will next show off its social space, but the Nick is surely crafting an original space in the social VR landscape that other companies aren't.