My short stint as one of the Virtual World’s first employees

So this weekend, I resigned from a job that I’d been working at for a little over a month. I’m pretty sure that I am one of the first people in the world to have a job in Virtual Reality, and almost positive that I’m the first to quit a job in Virtual Reality.

You’re probably pretty confused right now, I mean, people have been working in VR for quite a few years now, building things, doing lots of different things. How can I say I’m the first?

Well, the reason my job was different to all of those was not that I was working on creating virtual reality, but that I went to work in Virtual Reality. My job was as a greeter for the social VR platform High Fidelity. My shifts consisted of logging on to the platform, putting on my Vive HMD, and talking to new users – helping them work through any problems they may have, teaching them what they can do with the platform, or even teaching them some of the more advanced creation features in High Fidelity. During my time there, I talked with people all over the world – some of whom should probably have been in bed instead of hanging out in VR, but who am I to judge? I also got really familiar with a lot of the different aspects of High Fidelity – one of which, is that as an artist, if I want to build a multiplayer environment and show it to other people, I can do so without writing a single line of code or needing to do anything super technical. I can just upload my assets, drop them in the scene, move them around, visit them in VR to see how big they are, and if they make sense for the scene, and then immediately share with other people. I can’t state enough how powerful that is – and how much that appeals to the people I met during the course of my work there.

One of the things that I found most interesting, though, is how fun some things are in VR that you just wouldn’t expect. We spent a fair amount of time stacking giant boxes as high as we could go, for example. I’m sure that’s something you haven’t found fun in reality since you were probably about 2 years old, yet in VR it’s a whole new fun thing to do. Scaling yourself up or down and flying around while you talk to others is also much more entertaining than you’d think it would be. Being able to interact with your environment with other people, use things in unexpected ways, like shooting a flare gun at someone to give them a horror movie style underlight, this is something that even after months of regular VR use, I still find fun and novel, especially with other people.

It’s possible that one day, going to work in VR will be the norm for most of us – as avatars get closer and closer to accurately representing our movement and expressions, there will soon be many fewer reasons to deal with that awful commuter life. I found it to be really natural – after a couple of hours I would forget that I was at home, because I wasn’t, really. My consciousness, and my job were all focused in a virtual world. I’d be happy for most of my meetings to be in VR, I think, and as tools get better for working within VR, more and more people will be spending their work day doing the same. Imagine one day that instead of customer service being a horrible phone tree, you instead could walk down a path in VR that takes you to the person you need to talk to, complete with soothing visuals and sounds – or if you’re the customer service rep, you can spend your day in an environment of your choice while you deal with difficult customers.

I’m sad that I had to resign, this was an interesting experience for me, and everyone at High Fidelity was really great.

If you’re interested in doing my job, they’re hiring to replace me! 


Who am I?

Reality, it’s one of those things that we all feel we mostly have a handle on. Most of the time, when someone asks you “Who are you?” you probably have a reasonable answer. You’re somebody’s friend, you’re someone who does a particular thing, you’re someone who has certain physical attributes, certain personality traits. You’re a big venn diagram of all of these things, and in the center of that diagram, is your sense of self, your sense of who you are.

When it comes to Virtual Reality, however, that becomes a different question with a vastly different answer – an answer you may not even know, yet.  I’ve been spending quite a lot of time lately in a few different Social VR applications. Each one has a different approach to how you appear to others, and to yourself. Rec Room, for example, has a lot of customization options to allow you to change hair, accessories, and your shirt, and you appear to others as a fairly cartoonish head, hands and torso – so you can look how you want, as long as how you want to appear is not realistic at all.  Your eyes and other facial features are 2D, drawn on.

BigScreen on the other hand, limits you further in some respects, giving you just a head and hands, though now you do have more realistic facial features – still in the stylized realm, but you feel a little less like you’re talking to a cartoon, and again, things like hairstyle, skin color, eye shape, accessories are all customizable.

Then there’s Altspace. In Altspace you’re pretty limited – there are a few different robot avatars, including one that’s basically a colored q-tip, a masculine robot, and a stylized female and male avatar. Customization here is quite limited – your only options are to change the color of your robot, or the color of your humanoid avatar. All the humans look basically the same, though, very little individuality is possible here.

Finally the other place I’ve been spending some time lately is High Fidelity. The default avatars here are pretty limited too – there’s a generic space alien default, and a couple of female and male avatars on the market place there, but one of the interesting things here is that you can also upload your own avatar. Of the avatars available, two of them are very realistic human scans, that move quite believably as the user talks. It’s easy to forget that the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually look like that in reality. One of the things that it’s possible for you to do, in High Fidelity though, is to upload a 3D scan of yourself, and to walk around in Virtual Reality as your own self. There’s also a separate company working on allowing you to play as your own 3D scanned person in a lot of different game experiences – including things like Skyrim. The company in question, Uraniom recently made a miniom of me – their name for your scanned avatar. The thing is, it’s both great, because the avatar really looks realistically like me, and also terrible, because it really looks realistically like me.

I’m not sure that I want to play as a realistic version of myself in virtual reality, because one of the appealing parts of VR is the ability to not be yourself.  I also have an avatar in High Fidelity that’s a more stylized version of me based on a scan. I’m more comfortable with that, because it looks like me, but not too much. Other people I’ve talked to, though, don’t want to ever look like themselves in VR, but they’d much rather look like an avatar that they may have identified with for a really long time – it may not look like the Reality version of themselves, but it still represents, to them, who they are.

There are other things to consider, too, when deciding if you want to be yourself in VR or not. In the real world, you can’t choose your ethnicity – or at least, you can’t choose what your ethnicity appears to be to those around you. In VR, though, you can choose to avoid the negative connotations of being black, or being female, at least visually (verbally could be another thing entirely). If you can do so, do you? How much of your identity is tied up in your gender or skin color? How about if you’re an amputee, would you decide to make your avatar reflect that? Or would you rather have all four limbs if that’s a possibility for you in virtuality? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, partly because I think that this is something that people will decide for themselves, based on the limitations of each system. I do think that your behavior in some way is governed by how you, and others, are represented. The more realistic the avatar, the more likely someone is to treat you exactly as if you are standing in front of them – the more generic you appear, the more stylized, the less likely it is that you will feel real to the other person. We’re hardwired biologically to recognize faces, to look someone else in the eyes and recognize that there is a person inside there. If I decide to be a kitten in VR, does that detract from how other people see me?  If one day, my job involves attending meetings in VR, if I don’t look like me, is that a deal breaker? Will wearing your own skin one day be the same as those jobs where you must wear a uniform? What if I just want to be a slightly prettier, more appealing version of myself? If we can all be super attractive in VR, will we never return to reality, because your meat suit isn’t as appealing as your real life suit?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions – but I do think that the skin we wear will determine how we are treated in VR, and so determining who we are, and how we as designers and developers allow people to represent themselves, will have ongoing implications for things like community management in the long term. When we allow people to answer the question “Who am I?” with a wide variety of options, it may be that we end up with a whole different virtual society that looks nothing like anything in existence right now. And given current events, maybe that’s a good thing.


Emotion vs Immersion

If you spend any amount of time thinking about, reading about, or developing something for VR, one of the buzzwords you hear frequently is immersion. We strive to create immersive experiences, where the viewer feels transported to a different place, but one where the paradigms are carefully managed, so that the person in the HMD feels transported – physically present in a virtual world.

Presence is the important term here. Simple things can break this sense of presence very easily – for example a camera that is too far above the ground. A missing physical body frequently can break this sense too, although including hands via either controllers like the vive or a system like the leap motion helps immensely with the sense of self that exists in the virtual reality. So developers right now spend a lot of time thinking about how to create presence, how to offer the viewer or player something that is as immersive as possible, in a variety of ways. Haptics, peripherals, devices that blow air in your face, spaces you can move around in and experience positional tracking naturally, seats that move your body in reaction to your VR experience, visual feedback in game, etc etc.

Immersion is important, but in some sense, it’s only important right now – it’s something we need to master, yes. But in 5 years, nobody will be talking about creating immersive content, it will just be one aspect of what you do. It might even be that you make conscious choices about breaking presence, in order to craft a different, hybrid reality experience. Right now, immersion is key, because when you’re new to VR, the thing that will blow your mind is actually feeling like you have been transported to some new world, some place that you are physically present. The WOW reaction that a VRgin has, is based mostly on how successfully we do this.

But that wow feeling only exists for a very short window of time. I’m past wow already, when it comes to immersion. It’s still cool, it’s still intriguing to be in a different place, but what gets me now is what is actually fun – what makes my experience great? Is it the strong visuals? (TheBlu) Interesting story? (Gone)Fun gameplay? (Goosebumps) Fear? (Dreadhalls) Sound? (Ossic)? The key going forward, I think, is going to be only partly dependent on these. Immersion will be a fact of life, but not what sells somebody on the experience you’re giving them. You won’t sell units based on immersion, unless you’re immersing someone in a completely unique place (e.g. SpaceVR) The really important thing we actually need to master is emotion. VR has a capability to create emotion in people that no medium to date has had the power to do. Yes – film can make you feel sad, or inspired, or fearful, but the inherent nature of film is that you are one step removed from that emotion. It’s temporary, it’s not part of our actual experience of the world. We remember that we saw something on a screen that evoked an emotion. When we go through an emotional journey, personally experience something like love, or fear, that is as different from the emotion you feel watching a film, as black and white television is to IMAX. VR takes you that far again into emotion. It doesn’t matter if it’s created content. It doesn’t even matter if it is realistic feeling content, our brains will experience it as though it is no different from reality. Logically, you may know that you are wearing a HMD, that it isn’t ‘real’. But viscerally and subconsciously, you will feel that emotion in the parts of your brain that are immune to reason, that existed far earlier in our evolutionary history.

Consider falling in love. What is the experience of falling in love like, from your brain’s perspective? Forget the stories we tell ourselves, consider instead what we feel when someone holds eye contact with us for the first time. What that rush of oxytocin feels like to our system. It’s not really dependent on the person we fall in love with – if it was, we’d all make far better choices when dating. It’s about the experience and feelings that the other person succeeds in creating, in us.

In VR, we can already give you eye contact, we can, within a few years, given reasonably well designed AI, successfully mimic all of the things that could make you feel love and affection for someone, only you would be falling in love with a virtual character. If that’s not something you personally find compelling, consider that the genre of books, year over year, that consistently outsells every other genre, is romance novels. There’s a reason for that – and it’s not because they’re original, or great literature. Just look at the Twilight franchise. The reason it was so successful is in part because the protagonist is an every-girl. Non-descript, Bella is what every ordinary girl dreams she could be, if only the right boy/sparkly vampire found her.  VR gives us the opportunity to play every role we ever wished for, try out being a superhero, or the girl the vampire loves, but only if we succeed in making the viewer feel that power, those emotions.

Even if you’re not interested in creating LoVR, it’s worth considering as we build narratives, and experiences, and games, that we should be creating an emotional script as we go – just as the film and animation industry create color scripts that dictate what every scene of a movie feels like, we should create emotion scripts, so at every moment in our experience, we know what emotion we are trying to create in the user, whether that is fear, love, joy, frustration, embarrassment, or anger. Even more complex emotions should not be out of reach for us, providing that is something we approach consciously. Design for the subconscious brain, make it feel, and there is no limit to what we can do with reality.