Meet the man making VR less lonely: Starting conversations in virtual reality

MetaWorld is currently little more than one square mile of open space, sparsely populated with trees, rocks, twigs, a couple of campsites and a chessboard. Overhead, flocks of birds fly past, and the sound of tweeting emanates from high tree branches. In the distance lie snow-capped mountains and rolling hills, and a horizon of infinite possibilities.

It’s here, in this virtual world, that I have my first social experience in VR – and it’s incredible.

Instead of having a laggy Skype conversation, crackling long-distance phone call or cringeworthy FaceTime chat, I met HelloVR founder and MetaWorld creator Dedric Reid inside his own creation. Understandably, it was a little disorientating. I’ve never met Reid before, but it was clear the ginger-bearded and white-gloved avatar representing him in MetaWorld wasn’t an accurate representation of what he looked like. In fact, my avatar was exactly the same – after all, it’s early days and there are only a couple of stock avatars currently available.

MetaWorld Chess

Despite the limited customisation, this first social experience with VR finally put me on the same page as Mark Zuckerberg: this will be the future of online social interaction.

For a long time, virtual-reality worlds have been portrayed in movies as completely new and frightening worlds. Films as early as Tron and nineties sci-fi classics The Matrix and Johnny Mnemonic helped cement the idea of VR as an incredible tool but also as a frighteningly isolating experience.

Times have changed, technology has marched on, and depictions in the hugely popular series Sword Art Online and Ernest Cline’s sci-fi novel Ready Player One have shifted perceptions of VR into social and formative experiences. However, many still see donning a headset and plunging yourself into a virtual space as an isolating experience; MetaWorld is here to show that it’s not.

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Working with British technology company Improbable and its powerful data-crunching SpatialOS platform, the three-strong US-based VR developer HelloVR has built MetaWorld – a massive, open virtual world – as a space for you and others to build, explore, play and chat within. If we’re ever going to have a level of VR immersion akin to that found in Cline’s fictional OASIS system, HelloVR is pushing towards creating it.

Truth be told, my interaction with Reid felt lifelike largely because of the HTC Vive’s excellent one-to-one tracking capabilities. Seeing his hand gestures and head movements as he spoke really brought a sense of his personality to a static floating avatar comprised of just a head and hands. It was clear I was speaking to a real person rather than just a flat video, or a scripted avatar animation. This was real. So real, in fact, Reid could actually tell that I was taller than him. True, at 6ft 8in, most people work this out pretty quickly – but usually only when we’re in the same room.

Speaking with Reid one-on-one in “cyberspace” wowed me in a way I never thought possible, but MetaWorld isn’t just a tool for having online chats. In fact, what makes HelloVR’s project truly interesting is its use of Improbable’s SpatialOS to create a unified and persistent open world.

SpatialOS is, in the most simple of terms, a layer that developers can use to create unified, living worlds. Improbable’s CTO Rob Whitehead explained SpatialOS’s original intention was a means to create “a game where every single entity in it was completely living. The trees would literally grow out of the ground; there would be a full ecology.”

Comparing it to a modern online world like Blizzard’s MMO World of Warcraft, Whitehead explains that a traditional MMO is like an amusement park, one where players are simply going from one area to another and queuing to join a ride (read: quest). In these worlds “you’re ready to go slay a dragon, and you look behind you to find a queue of other people waiting to slay the dragon too.”

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SpatialOS is here to shake that up and lend some realism to online worlds. It’s currently holding Bossa Studios’ Worlds Adrift MMO together so that players can build worlds and craft stories together, and it makes complete sense for HelloVR to utilise the technology for its other-world VR experience.

Thanks to SpatialOS, everything in MetaWorld remains exactly as you leave it. From chess pieces left haphazardly on a chessboard, to the sticks, rocks and even mushrooms that Reid and I threw around during our time in MetaWorld, everything will stay exactly where they are until another user comes along and tidies up… or makes things messier. This is what’s known as a persistent world.

Ultimately, HelloVR plans to make MetaWorld into a 10,000-square-mile space for people to build, create and socialise in VR. To put that into context, London is just over 600 square miles. The final vision also involves other developers plugging their services, ideas and experiences into MetaWorld to turn it into a gateway for other VR applications.

It may be a long time yet before we see a world like our own recreated in virtual reality, but the incredible and compelling experience I had inside MetaWorld has shown me we’re finally on our way there. Where it goes next will depend on how quickly people embrace the possibilities that the movies promised us.

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