The Evolution of Virtual Worlds, Part Two. Social Virtual Reality.

This is the second in a series of four posts exploring how virtual reality will drive the future evolution and direction of virtual worlds – what we’re calling ‘Virtual Worlds 3.0′. Part One laid out the development and progress of the virtual world sector through stages 1.0 and 2.0 and can be read here. This post delves into Social Virtual Reality, one of the three main growth areas of VW3.0.

Let’s start with a (very simple) definition:

Social Virtual Reality is a virtual environment designed specifically for multi-user social interactions using virtual reality headsets.

In a literal sense, this is the ‘chat room’ concept that we all understand, only now actually allowing the user to be ‘in’ the room.

The graphic shown below positions Social Virtual Reality in our VW3.0 map using the variables of Self-Expression and Presence. The Self-Expression axis relates to the degree of customisation that a user can conduct in a virtual word, i.e. is UGC permitted.

social virtual reality2

The greater the self-expression that greater the ability for a user to customise their avatar and create/modify virtual objects and the environment. Presence relates to the feeling of ‘being inside’ a virtual world. Virtual reality is much better at creating presence than a virtual world experienced on a monitor, even if it’s in 3D.

Of course, user to user (or more appropriately avatar to avatar) communication in virtual rooms has been around for as long as virtual worlds have been in existence and we anticipate that the emergence of Social Virtual Reality will open up this market eventually to the masses.

Type of Messaging

Looking first at communication from a messaging perspective, this  is in two main forms, either text-chat or voice.

The image below shows some examples of test-chat avatar communication in virtual worlds (clockwise from top left: Webflock, Second Life, IMVU and Playstation Home).

text chat in virtual worlds

All four of these virtual worlds primarily use text-based messaging between users. But, is test-based chat sufficient for Social Virtual Reality or is voice-chat needed?

Well, it depends on the market, i.e. the ages of the users. For younger markets, voice-chat can be easily abused by users who go on ‘swearing-sprees’.

Just as there is a market for content moderation in existing virtual worlds, the same would be required for Social Virtual Reality. The KT&T market is underpinned by user safety so voice-chat is not really a suitable option for this segment.

However, for Social Virtual Reality markets catered towards older users, the inclusion of voice-chat will add to the feeling of presence and this we feel is very important when bridging the gap between early adopters and the early majority. The feeling of immergence experienced in virtual reality could potentially be diluted if the user to user communication takes place by typing words as opposed to speaking them. As a side-note, this therefore means VR headset manufacturers could be missing a trick if they don’t  incorporate microphone and earphone capabilities into their equipment.

Visual Communication

Moving onto visual communication (which is just as important in real-life as what is spoken and therefore important in the virtual sense), breaking this down into simple areas we’re referring to how we look and body movement/posture.

‘How we look’ relates to avatar customisation – the ability for users to create and modify how they look in a virtual environment. Avatar customisation is (in most cases) a prerequisite action for anyone in a virtual world and additionally a popular activity for users of all ages. Existing virtual worlds catered towards kids and tweens typically use non-humanoid or stylised avatars for user representation (think penguins and furry monsters) whereas teen and older worlds tend to have avatar customisation based on more realistic representations.

For Social Virtual Reality we believe users will want avatars with realism. This means growth in the ‘avatar builder’ market from companies offering highly customisable virtual character creation, over and above the existing capabilities that virtual worlds have.

And this leads us to an interesting discussion point relating to how people choose to portray themselves in virtual worlds. What we’re getting at here is the way people choose to express themselves via their avatars. In the red corner we have ‘Augmentalists’ – people who view their avatar as an extension of their real world persona. In the blue corner are the ‘Immersionalists’ – those who view their virtual world presence as mutually exclusive from the real world.

Augmentalists typically choose to customise their avatar to closely resemble their real world appearance, whereas Immersionalists do not. In some cases Immersionalists even choose to change gender, hide their real identity and take on completely new personas.

A research project initiated in 2007 by the US Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee and conducted by Zogby International asked 3,585 adults questions relating to attitudes towards technology.

A specific question asked was: ‘‘Some people are now participating in virtual worlds such as Second Life. Lets say you’re creating a virtual you in a virtual world. Would you dramatically alter the avatars physical appearance from your own? The results of this question are shown in the chart right. So, broadly speaking half of the sample would want an avatar that looked just like them and near equal amounts (15% to 18%) would either dramatically change how they looked (these are the Immersionalists) or enhance how they looked. This means that the ‘Facebook MMO with 1bn people in it’ would not be an appealing destination for the Immersionalists.

Avatar Control

Body posture and movement is the other visual communication factor. By this we mean being able to move/drive your avatar in a virtual environment. The good news here is that technology already exists and is improving all the time. Head tracking is a feature of the upcoming Oculus DK2 and the Morpheus headset from Sony incorporates the ability to measure head movement. For body tracking there is already talk about systems such as the Microsoft Kinect being suitable for this purpose. And there are other companies looking into this feature such as High Fidelity from Second Life founder Philip Rosedale that utilises built-in video cameras present in most modern laptops.

There’s also a growing market for companies developing other types of input systems to control avatars in virtual reality. Check-out our VR Hardware Radar here.

This in turn does present challenges that will need to be overcome at some point. Namely, wearing a VR headset obscures at least half of your head, meaning eye movement and some facial expressions can not be tracking by external measuring devices. Someone will figure this out no doubt!

Welcome to my Room

Moving onto the chat rooms themselves…..

Ironically, we believe the very last thing these virtual reality spaces will be is ‘rooms’. Why should they? Want to have a hangout on top of a mountain, or on the moon? No problem. What about on the beach or floating on a hot-air balloon over the Tuscan hillside? Social Virtual Reality will take place in whatever environment we choose.

Some of these environments will be built and created by the companies creating Social Virtual Reality platforms, facilitating intimate surroundings right through to larger group gatherings. Other environments will be created by the users themselves and that leads us nicely into the next growth area for VW3.0, User Generated Spaces which will be explained in Part Three of our series on the Evolution of Virtual Worlds.

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