Almost every VR developer I spoke to at this year's Game Developers Conference told me the same thing: social VR is the end game. I believe it. While these virtual worlds have the power to captivate us, it's when we share them with others that they truly come alive. Already VR is finding ways to make VR sociable, and GDC brought even more promising results.
Favourites included Nvidia's Firehouse, a sequel to its Funhouse demo (built to demonstrate its Pascal GPU for VR last year), which plonks you and up to three other people in a carnival filled with typical fairground minigames and a sizeable arsenal of wacky weapons. In the 20 minutes that followed, my new friend and I compared shooting accuracy, played catch, threw flammable clown heads at each other, and - once we'd exhausted all other activities - beat the living crap out of each other with novelty hammers.
Less silly, but equally convincing, were some of the titles I played at Oculus's press day. Many of these games had a multiplayer element, but the one that stuck with me was From Other Suns, an FTL-inspired co-op for three players where you're hurtling through a procedurally generated galaxy and taking on various threatening scenarios. What I liked was how you and your companions will often take on unique responsibilities, whether that's taking different roles to defend the ship, or having two of you teleport to an enemy ship while the other stays back to repair any damage sustained in combat.
It's not just games. On the show floor I stumbled on a surgery simulator for training medical students to remove bloods clot from ischemic stroke victims. This is no Surgeon Simulator, but a serious, medical tool where another doctor wears a headset and has a virtual presence in the room as they guide you through the procedure. Here, the shared experience isn't about fun, but about accurately recreating surgery conditions - and having a helping hand.
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People are also thinking about how VR can be social for viewers. Platforms like Twitch are getting bigger and eSports is exploding, so how can spectators get in on the fun? Enter Genvid, a broadcast tool that streams VR games to platforms like YouTube. Viewers can switch between in-game angles and view information about each player, making for a more interactive way of streaming - particularly in VR where the outside viewer is often alienated.
Not a game, but a demonstration of how to make social VR more convincing, was Tobii's eye-tracking tech. Eye tracking will make our in-game avatars a lot more authentic when interacting with other players, and take us one step closer to the Metaverse.
The list goes on - VR rollercoasters, Laser Quest-style VR rooms - and I walked away from another GDC convinced that virtual reality is headed in the right direction. One of the technology's biggest problems at the moment is that it's too often an isolating experience; slowly but surely, it will be harder to level that criticism against it.
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