It’s hard to know exactly when social media came into being. Did it happen with the 1995 social networking site Classmates? Maybe it was the short-lived Six Degrees profile uploading service of 1997. Or, it might have been the 1999 launch of LiveJournal—started by programmer Brad Fitzpatrick, who likely just wanted a way to keep his high school friends updated on who he was dating and all the songs he was ripping from Napster. Whenever (or whatever) it was, we can all agree that social media, as we know it today, gained its true popularity shortly after the turn of the 21st century. That’s when sites like LinkedIn, Myspace, and Facebook began setting the digital world on fire, and announcing to everyone with dial-up that there was no turning back for social media.
Which begs the question, just where is social media headed today?
All things being equal, modern social networking sites like Instagram, TikTok, Reddit, and Pinterest don’t seem that much different from their predecessors of the last 20 years or so. Sure, internet connections are faster, and photos and videos look better, but beyond that, what can we expect from social media going forward?
Could the true paradigm shift come in the form of virtual reality?
Let’s get virtual
While social media has revolutionized how we connect with one another, virtual reality opens doors that allow us to connect and share on an entirely different level. When it comes to total immersion, VR is tough to beat—stepping into another world is as easy as strapping on a VR headset and choosing your game. It lets users gather with friends and other participants anywhere across the globe and then share experiences that would never be possible in the real world—think ship-to-ship space combat, zombie-infested death pits, and creepy horror escape rooms. And even if you’re not a digital thrill-seeker, that’s fine. You can also hang out with your friends and watch movies together on giant virtual screens.
But innovators of virtual reality are beginning to think beyond gaming and binging. The goal is to connect the world in a more meaningful way, and social VR might just be the catalyst.
VR meets social
So, what exactly is Social VR? Simply put, social VR gives participants the experience of getting together as avatars and interacting in simulated worlds. But it’s not exactly a new concept. Sony spent millions of dollars creating PlayStation Home. This short-lived social platform was eventually removed after being largely considered a failure. And the now-defunct Facebook Spaces was CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s way of trying to socially connect the world through virtual reality way back in 2014.
While Facebook Spaces didn’t exactly catch on, it represented one of the major turning points in social media. It introduced spatial interactions in the form of exchanging and collaboratively interacting with meaningful objects. This concept of “presence” changed the way VR developers began approaching new content.
Rec Room launched its VR platform in the summer of 2016. At its genesis, Rec Room was nothing more than a fun, cartoonish aesthetic that let you play a collection of mini-games with other users. Though it was very much a work in progress, Rec Room was soon making ambitious updates to their platform, including creative tools, custom environments, and more. The result was a vibrant social world of presence that attracted more and more users.
Early social VR innovators like Facebook Spaces and Rec Room forced the industry to take notice. And it wasn’t long before social VR was considered the next great dimension of social media.
Social VR: A new horizon
It’s not surprising that Social VR is maturing faster than ever today. An array of social VR experiences is paving the way for how participants interact and communicate in virtual worlds. One such example is XRSpace. Released in May of 2020, this end-to-end social VR platform lets users enter the ever-expanding world of “Manova.” There they can access a variety of activities, including mini-games, shopping, and exercising. While this impressive experience redefines how people connect, socialize, and collaborate in virtual worlds, the fully self-sufficient and software-loaded headset will set you back about $600.
But you don’t have to buy a bunch of pricy new hardware to get in on social VR. There are now many apps that you can purchase, download, and access via your own connected wearable. Let’s look at a few:
VRChat is all about the power of creation. It offers a wide collection of social VR experiences, allowing users to play, hang out, create worlds, and chat using spatialized 3D audio. VRChat features expressive lip-synced avatars, multi-player VR games, and virtual space stations where participants can watch YouTube videos with friends.
Vastly improved since its beginnings in 2016, Rec Room is a (free!) platform made up of thousands of player-created rooms. Each room has its own unique multi-player activity in which to participate. You can play with friends or meet VR participants from around the globe. What’s more, Rec Room supports all kinds of devices, including PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others.
Altspace VR is basically a hub for virtual meetups. You and your friends can hang out in a variety of different worlds, some of which include hot springs, an enchanted meadow, a cabin on a lake, a space museum, and a Brooklyn rooftop. Feeling creative? Altspace VR allows you to create your own worlds as well.
Hanging out and watching movies barely scratches the surface when it comes to Big Screen. This platform has revolutionized the way people work, play, meet up, and collaborate within the VR space. With Big Screen, you can take part in virtual movie nights, LAN parties, PC games, and many more multi-player activities. Rooms can hold up to 12 people from all over the world, and you can connect with friends over PSVR, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and others.
Sports Bar VR
This is exactly what it sounds like, minus the watered-down cocktails. In Sports Bar VR, you and eight other players can play classic bar games, including pool, darts, and air hockey. It’s also cross-platform, allowing you to connect with all your friends on HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and Valve Index.
Facebook has been one of the flagship companies for building VR headsets and promoting social virtual reality. So, it’s no surprise that, after Facebook Spaces, they went back to the drawing board to create Facebook Horizon. This user-generated virtual reality world is widely considered the first step toward creating an actual metaverse (in short, a universe of interconnected virtual worlds). In Horizon’s reality sandbox universe, you can build your own environments and games, play and socialize with friends, or just explore user-generated landscapes.
What social VR could mean for brands
These new platforms and technology can only mean that collaboration, gameplay, and world-building are tools brand marketers should get behind. Eventually, brands will use social VR to reach target audiences in powerful ways that text, image, or video just can’t.
Says early beta Facebook Horizon content creator and social media consultant, Navah Berg, “I believe the next phase of social media is presence. Imagine a place where a brand can invite their brand ambassadors to try out a product without hopping on an airplane? A place a brand can launch a press release without writing a … release but actually being there and sharing the news with a community of journalists in a get-together in social VR. There are so many opportunities for brands and content creators. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
The future is bright for social VR
While it’s always nice to see your friends in person, VR experiences prove that hanging with people from a distance can be just as fun. And when it comes to social VR, the sky—or, more aptly, the internet—is the limit. In very short order, we’ll likely see social VR platforms skyrocket in popularity and demand. Like the legacy social networks of the early 2000s, social VR developers will thrive off the feedback they get from their communities. This will make future platforms and technologies richer and more meaningful.
In the meantime, there’s an endless virtual world out there just waiting for us. A world where we can explore, play, meet, and create … and social VR lets us experience it all without ever leaving the comfort of our real-world homes. How’s that for being both virtually and really amazing at once?