A big thing happened last week, and hardly anybody noticed: The first mainstream social virtual world came into existence.
Oculus VR, the virtual reality company owned by Facebook, released an app called the Oculus Social alpha. It's for users of the Samsung Gear VR virtual reality headset, which uses a Samsung phone as the screen and brains of the headset and is based on Oculus technology.
Oculus Social is, for now, a virtual reality movie-watching app. The experience is that you choose an avatar to represent yourself, and then you suddenly show up in a kind of small movie theater, sitting in one of the seats. You can watch a video from Twitch or a preselected video from Vimeo and, if you want to, chat with up to four other people who are also in the theater and are also represented by avatars.
In the current version, there are no avatar bodies. Just heads floating above the seats. As the real-life users talk, nod or turn their heads, so do their avatars. Stereo sound bolsters the illusion of presence by making the sound of the movie come from the screen, but the sound of users talking comes from the avatars.
That experience may sound boring and, as virtual reality applications go, it's rudimentary. But it's a major milestone: It's the first social experience ever provided for an Oculus VR-based platform.
It's very basic but pregnant with culture-shifting possibility in the same way those first, and now old, Nokia cellphones used to be.
Next year is going to be the Year of Virtual Reality. The Oculus Rift platform is expected to ship in the first quarter of 2016. The enterprise version of Microsoft's Hololens should also emerge some time next year. Google's Cardboard platform, an open-source way for any company to make inexpensive VR headsets that can be used with a smartphone, should finally gain mainstream traction. And many other hardware, software and VR content products should become available for consumers.
The public thinks the big VR app will be gaming. But I think it will be social interaction. That's why the appearance of the Oculus Social alpha is significant. It's a milestone as important as when the first smartphone came out -- a first product in its category that will completely change how humans interact with one another.
What Zuck said
When Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in March of last year that Facebook would acquire Oculus VR, the news was greeted with a collective "Huh?!"
After all, why would a social network company buy what everyone viewed as a gaming console? Zuckerberg himself addressed that question in his announcement post. He wrote: Oculus Rift "is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life. Imagine sharing not just moments with your friends online, but entire experiences and adventures."
In other words, virtual reality is a social space, or will be one day. But why?
The social imperative
People are social creatures. We're naturally drawn toward social interaction with others. That's why Facebook itself is so big, now with around a billion and a half active users. But people don't present accurate or balanced views of their lives on Facebook. They reveal versions of themselves made up of snippets of moments that represent the self they want to present, because that’s what they want others to see.
Virtual reality social networking will be hyper-compelling because it, too, will enable people to interact with others not as their true selves, but as the versions of themselves they want to present to the world. These alternative, representative selves will range from virtual "twins" -- avatars recognizable as actual people, but slimmer, younger and better dressed -- to creatures from users' imaginations, or from the imaginations of avatar creators.
Once inhabiting their chosen virtual personas, users will be able to beam from virtual space to virtual space and interact socially with other real people from the safety of their artificial avatar selves.
VR technology will map our every movement, including our facial expressions. In some cases, it will automate a movement like walking, while mimicking the movement of our faces, heads, hands and torsos.
VR social interactions will take place in wild and amazing places -- on distant planets, under water, at historic sites (and in historic times) -- you name it.
Of course, the ability to interact with others as yourself while also being someone else already exists in massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs) and virtual worlds like Second Life. But on those platforms, the social interaction is happening "over there" on a flat screen. Psychologically, you're outside and away from your avatar, and watching as a third party. Even in a garden-variety first-person shooter game, the illusion of participation is only partial. To look to the left, you push a game controller knob to the left, and the screen changes to simulate a leftward glance. If you were to actually turn your head to look to the left, you would no longer be looking at the game.
In virtual reality, the experience feels like direct and total participation and immersion. When you want to look to the left, you turn your head and see what's to your left in the 360-degree virtual world you're immersed in. More compelling, is that when you're having a conversation with another person, you can make eye contact.
It's the best of all possible social interactions -- you're able to satisfyingly interact with other people. But you're fabulous or amazing in some way based on your avatar. And the other people’s avatars are fabulous or amazing, too. These interactions take place in incredible places. You can be given magic powers, incredible skills and the ability to instantly transport yourself to another world for another social interaction.
The emotional power and awe-inducing effect of virtual reality is something the public is not expecting. I believe social interaction in virtual reality will be the most addictive aspect of the technology, and -- dare I predict -- it will be the most addictive experience ever introduced.
The reality is that some people are lucky enough to live beautiful, safe and fulfilling lives. But a great many people are not so lucky. And for all people with access to virtual reality -- the lucky and the unlucky -- the virtual world will be completely amazing and irresistibly fascinating.
For millions of people, the world of virtual reality will be the ultimate escape -- a world vastly preferable to the real world. And their voluntary nonparticipation in the real world will become a big problem. It's likely to eventually become a bigger problem than alcoholism, drug abuse and gambling addiction combined.
But for the majority, I think virtual reality will simply become a normal way to be transported to another world, primarily for social interaction -- like TV, but social and extremely participatory.
Like all new culture-changing technologies, social virtual reality will be the best thing and the worst thing that ever happened to us. It will bring us together in some ways somewhere in the virtual worlds, but it will also isolate us more in the real world.
And like all massive culture-shifting technologies, it began in an obscure, unnoticed corner of the world -- an event that took place last week with the posting of Oculus Social alpha. For early adopters, virtual reality will really begin next year. The culture-shifting mass adoption is probably five years away.
Regardless of the timing, social virtual reality is coming. And it's going to change everything.