If feels like we've finally reached the point where VR is starting to deliver the VR experiences we've been longing for. Games like Lone Echo and Star Trek Bridge Crew are setting a new bar for social VR, while new technology on the horizon promises to break down the immersive input barrier.
It's both a hardware and a software problem. How do you recreate humanity in a virtual world? To answer that, you may have to turn to Facebook, which is helping to answer that question.
Oh, cause it owns Oculus
Well, yes. But also because it has Facebook Spaces, which our features editor Sophie got a chance to try out in a frenetic demo this week. It allows you and your fellow Oculus Rift-owning Facebook buddies to create and customize your own avatars (based on your profile pics, natch) and hang out in a virtual environment.
That just sounds like Second Life?
The difference, my friend, is the power of Facebook's social network. It's - quite literally recreating your social life in a virtual, 360-degree space, rather than a virtual, 2D web browser or mobile app.
So, yes, while you can voice chat with people and doodle things and live stream a bunch of stuff, you're doing it in a three-dimensional space with head tracking that makes it feel like you have more of a presence than something like, say, a Skype video call.
Spaces isn't the only social VR game in town; there have been more and more multiplayer VR games focused on social. There's more traditional stuff like Echo Arena, which pits teams against each other in VR, but there's also stuff like Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes or Star Trek Bridge Crew, which combines VR content and real-world content for a truly social experience.
It's not just for your Rift-owning Facebook friends either, you can live stream your Spaces experience for everyone to see. Though, as Sophie found out, you might get comments from your friends confused about what's going on.
Ugh, Facebook comments
I know, I know. It's worth point out that Facebook is limiting Spaces to just your Facebook friends. So while some old high school buddies you never talk to might get through, it's more or less a space that feels safe. You're not just interacting with a bunch of strangers, you're with people who - for the most part - know you. By the way, you can even interact with those comments in the virtual world by grabbing them.
Speaking of grabbing, isn't that also important to immersion?
Absolutely! In Facebook Spaces, you're using the Touch controllers, which are now bundled with Oculus Rift (and, for a limited time, only priced at $399). That's much better than something like a gamepad for VR, because they essentially try to simulate natural grabbing motions and hand movements, but they still aren't good enough.
This week, Oculus chief scientist Michael Abrash gave us our first look at a pair of Rift VR gloves in action. The demo is impressive, but it's also incredibly expensive and not practical for the average user. The gloves are covered in retroreflectors and uses a whole bunch of cameras to track the 25 degrees of freedom that hands enjoy, which would mean a whole bunch of sensors in your room.
So that's definitely not close for consumers?
Unfortunately not, but there is hand-tracking company Leap Motion. Our US editor Hugh Langley spoke to its CEO, Michael Buckwald, recently. Leap's new sensor comes with a 180-degree field of view, which makes it more proficient at tracking your fingers. It's also trying to move into the mobile VR space.
Leap's end goal is full VR embodiment. You already know how to use your hands, so for full immersion into a virtual environment you'd have to actually use your hands rather than rely on a controller - or even a glove.
Full VR embodiment also means technology like facial tracking. They are, after all, the most expressive parts of our body and how we communicate with each other non-verbally. For VR to become fully immersive, it needs to find a way to track and translate our faces into a virtual world so that people know what we're thinking and feeling.
So the future of VR is to become less virtual?
As strange as it sounds, yes. The more advanced VR becomes, the more human it has to become. Humans are inherently social, so great social experiences in VR are essential to it having any staying power in the future. At the same time, being able to embody ourselves, using our hands and feet and head as we use them in real life, is essential. So yes, VR has to - and is - becoming more human.