Social or solitary? Oculus and Sony directors debate the future of VR

A beautiful, solitary experience or pass and play with your mates?
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There's only really one VR headset on sale, and already the virtual reality fan has its own stereotype. A loner, male - obviously - gamer who would rather to plug into Oculus or Valve's world than interact with his own world.

But is that so bad? We have so many social options - dinner with friends, football matches, dancing, the cinema - is one more activity to enjoy by ourselves so much of a crime?

Read this: The story of Blocks so far

It's no surprise that the future of VR lies in both social and solitary experiences. You wouldn't watch movies only alone or only with friends and even introverted book lovers find themselves at book clubs and readings.

Here's what each type of VR experience can offer us, according to the studio heads of Oculus Story Studio, Saschka Unseld, and Sony's London Studio, Dave Ranyard. Both were speaking at Power to the Pixel's The Conference as part of the BFI London Film Festival.

The case for solitary VR

Social or solitary? Oculus and Sony directors debate the future of VR

Saschka Unseld is creative director of Oculus Story Studio and directed its first short film, Lost. He moved to VR from cinema, specifically from Pixar where he worked on the cinematography for animation classics Toy Story 3, Brave and the upcoming The Good Dinosaur, as well as directing the understated 2012 Pixar short The Blue Umbrella.

We could listen to Unseld talk about VR filmmaking all day but in essence, what he is arguing for is a focus on the relationship between the person wearing the VR headset and the storyteller. He reasons that we will always be social creatures no matter how much tech is available to us, just like newspapers and books before it.

Are all movies social experiences? No.

"The beauty of VR for me, now, and it will move to social things, is that it's a singular, intimate, personal experience," he said. "That it is just me, like with a book. It is just me reading the book. There is something really beautiful and intimate about that one-on-one relationship between storyteller and a singular audience."

Studios and directors creating films and shorts for virtual reality can learn lessons from cinema but it's important to remember that VR is not cinema. "I like cinema way more than TV because of the social aspect," continued Unseld. "I hate all the people eating popcorn around me but I always love seeing the movie with them. But are all the movies we watch social experiences? No."

Social or solitary? Oculus and Sony directors debate the future of VR

The director and Oculus exec likens the experience of wearing a VR headset like Oculus Rift to "a theatre performance just for you" where you're a "singular audience standing on the stage, only it's not a stage, you're in the location where it happens."

That said, the choice to go to the cinema has its uses in VR. One very clever way Unseld and his team have used the social experience of cinema to their advantage with the making of Lost is in avoiding that overwhelming feeling when you place a Rift or Gear VR over your eyes mid-game or short.

"We knew we needed to change that 'in' experience of when you start telling the story in VR," he explained. "They were distracted. The interesting thing is if you look at something like cinema, before you start watching the movie you go through a ritual of getting ready to hear a story. You choose to go to the cinema, you settle in your seats, the lights dim, usually the curtains open, the title credits start, the music starts. These are all learned triggers of forgetting where we are and getting ready to pay attention to what's on the screen."

The case for social VR

Social or solitary? Oculus and Sony directors debate the future of VR

And just when you're convinced that you only want to spend time in single person VR shorts, so to games which is where the loner image problem originates from. The studio director of Sony's London Studio, Dave Ranyard, who has 80 devs working on virtual reality projects, is bullish about the social potential of VR gaming.

And if anyone knows social gaming, it's the creators of both Singstar and the augmented reality PS3 peripheral, and JK Rowling collaboration, Wonderbook. "In our studio we've made a lot of couch social, as we call it, game," he said. "So Singstar - you sing with your mates, it's a very social experience. If you sit down to play Singstar on your own, that's a bit weird. We've also made games like EyeToy which is a bit like a game show where you wave at the TV. We've got a lot of creative knowledge about how to make something social."

Everyone can have a bit of fun scaring the shit out of you in VR

One of the London Studio's highest profile VR projects this year has been London Heist, for the PlayStation VR, which puts you into a Guy Ritchie-style action movie set in the East End of London. But even games like this which rely on intense, interactive single player action can work in a crowded, living room setting. Take horror, typically associated with first person in VR so far.

Read this: We play London Heist on PlayStation VR

"We've done quite a few experiences where you might use companion apps," said Ranyard. "So you can use a table, phone or game controller to interact while somebody is in VR. So we actually made a demo of a scary house, quite simplistic, and did it for our President. On a tablet you could control the scares so actually that became a very social experience. Everybody else can have a bit of fun scaring the shit out of you."

Social or solitary? Oculus and Sony directors debate the future of VR

There's also VR voyeurism on the platform's side. The view counts on videos of people freaking out while wearing Oculus Rift aren't getting any lower. Some video games are more spectator friendly - you're more likely to watch a friend play Journey or a multiplayer Smash Bros brawl than a game of FIFA, for instance. In this way some VR games, ultimately probably mobile titles, will be fun for a group of casual gamers even if it's not a set up with a row of people sat down strapped into Oculus Rifts with headsets on.

"I'm actually quite confident that VR can be social," said Ranyard. "One of the fun things, certainly at the moment, is watching other people do it.

"Also you can do things like make a short form experience," he continued. "So we made a demo where it's a street luge. So you're on a big skateboard and you're weaving in and out of traffic. It's only two and a half minutes long and there's a leaderboard. So actually it's pass and play. You don't get to play all at the same time at this stage but everybody does play."


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Sophie was Wareable's associate editor. She joined the team from Stuff magazine where she was an in-house reviewer. For three and a half years, she tested every smartphone, tablet, and robot vacuum that mattered. 

A fan of thoughtful design, innovative apps, and that Spike Jonze film, she is currently wondering how many fitness tracker reviews it will take to get her fit. Current bet: 19.

Sophie has also written for a host of sites, including Metro, the Evening Standard, the Times, the Telegraph, Little White Lies, the Press Association and the Debrief.

She now works for Wired.

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