I’ve been giving a bit of thought recently to the possibilities offered by collaborative VR experiences. The point of VR is to cut you off from the world around you and to take you somewhere else, but in practice this often tends toward creating quite solitary experiences. Social VR platforms where people get together in virtual spaces can be quite interesting, but bandwidth limitations mean that the experiences are graphically underwhelming and often quite glitchy.
In the past I’ve occasionally worked with John Sear, who runs Museum Games. He’s traditionally not been a big fan of VR in part because he's really interested in activities that people do together. Nonetheless, with his encouragement, I went out this weekend to try a commercial VR escape room offered by meetspaceVR, to get a sense of what a high specification collaborative VR experience feels like.
Normally, Tess would come with me on these adventures, but since she’s back in the Netherlands at the moment, Rhi stepped in as supersub. Unfortunately, the Chernobyl themed escape room we were playing crashed so we didn’t get to complete it but the very lovely people at meetspaceVR have booked us in again in a couple of weeks to finish it off. Nonetheless, the twenty minutes that we played was enough to have some initial reflections on the medium.
With a social VR experience such as AltSpace VR or Facebook Horizons, individual users are trying to shove huge amounts of data at eachother across sometimes dodgy internet connections. Social VR spaces thus suffer the same kinds of problems that were seen in early online 3D social experiences such as Second Life – as soon as you get more than a handful of people in the same space, everything really slows down and often gets quite buggy. The escape room game, conversely, was being played on pretty high spec desktop PCs that were directly networked together, which meant very low latency and a genuine sense of being in the virtual space together. The headsets being used were, I think, HTC Vive Pros – certainly they had high resolution displays with no visible ‘screen door’ effect, so were comparatively comfortable in terms of eye strain compared to first generation devices.
The sense of collaboration and sharing the space was genuinely impressive. We had some initial fun trying to position ourselves to shake virtual hands with each other and it was quite interesting to be able to see where your playing partner had wandered off to within the game space and so go over to join them. Microphones in the headset meant that we could talk to each other with voices at a normal volume – a lesson not learned by the group of kids who were playing before us and spent their entire time screaming at eachother and cackling manically.
The game itself was quite good though Rhi was figuring out the puzzles a lot more quickly than I managed! Nonetheless, the primary thing that I struggled with was how frequently we ended up standing overly close to each other in the virtual space even though we were physically separated – a product of the fact that we were trying to figure out puzzles in the same location. We were given a choice of avatars and, unusually for me, I played as a male figure, where Rhi chose a female character. Unsurprisingly for a video game, the female avatar had her breasts prominently displayed and there were moments of real social discomfort when we ended up standing right in eachother’s space – violating the kinds of bodily norms of social distancing that we’d normally keep to. Bluntly, you could end up with a faceful of virtual cleavage if you weren’t careful.
I’ll confess, I found this genuinely uncomfortable, since I would never normally stand so close to a female friend and I found myself frequently apologising for ‘bumping into’ Rhi’s avatar as she and I teleported around the gamespace. Clearly, we’re friends and it’s not such a problem when done without malicious intent, but I would find it very difficult were I doing this with someone I didn’t know because it can feel really invasive.
Unwanted invasion of virtual personal space is, unfortunately, not a particularly new problem. The groping phenomenon in modern VR was already recognised back in 2016; indeed, there were even cases of rape/sexual assault being carried out in the early 1990s in text based multi-user games. In recent months, social VR platforms have seen an epidemic of groping and sexual harassment that has led Meta (previously Facebook) to create two foot ‘bubbles’ around social VR avatars to prevent unwanted virtual touching. This is, of course, all hugely depressing. The very thing that makes collaborative VR interesting – the very real sense of sharing a virtual space – is the thing that brings out the worst in all too many men.
Despite this, I found myself being quite excited by what a collaborative VR experience can offer, particularly with the newer high resolution headsets which mean that, say, reading a plan or document becomes a shared possibility within the VR space. There’s definitely an interesting PhD project here on these kinds of commercial experiences, but more than this there are intriguing possibilities for larger scale research using this technology to put groups of people into the same virtual scenario. Hopefully this year I’ll find time to put a grant bid together around some of these questions. It would be nice to see whether we can find uses for collaborative VR beyond the rather unexciting future of games and tedious business meetings that Meta and others are envisioning.
Phil Jones is a cultural geographer based at the University of Birmingham.
Phil Jones, Geographer