Hanging Out in VR

VR has always boasted about the places you can go inside a headset. Now that it’s April 2020 and we can’t leave our homes, this has even greater allure. While these experiences aren’t my main reason for exploring VR, I’ve recently used my headset to tour the British Museum, enjoyed the view from the peak of the Matterhorn, stood in front of my my childhood home in Ohio, and taken a walk on the Great Wall of China. While each of these experiences reminds me of the power and potential of VR, my focus is still being social and collaborative in VR.  What’s more amazing to me is who I’ve been meeting and hanging out with: current colleagues from Norway; former colleagues from Mexico; new connections in Hungary; and old friends from across the US. Moreover, I’ve explored with eighty year olds and twenty-somethings, with seasoned gamers, business executives and artists.

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The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum in VR

While a few of my connections are seasoned VR veterans, what’s been most surprising to me is how eagerly my friends and colleagues have joined me on this adventure. When I’ve invited them to get a headset, many have eagerly agreed. It turns out many of my friends are in same place as me: VR-curious for a long time, just lacking the final nudge to dive in. Perhaps it’s recent circumstances that have made us all so ready.

Given that we’re almost all newbies, it’s no wonder that our interactions share a certain fumbling excitement. We often express a nervous and delighted giddiness that’s matched only by our minimal competence. “Where are you?” “How do I get there?” “Do you see me?” “How did you do that?”–these are the VR equivalent of “You’re muted,” or “How do I share my screen” in this new era of video conferencing.

But behind the excitement and incompetence lies a feeling that being together in VR is notably different from both video conferencing and being in the same room together. I just played with a Danish and Hungarian business colleague in VR, for example. Prior to meeting them in VR, I’d been in meeting rooms, hotel lobbies and restaurants with these two. We’ve always enjoyed each other’s company and liked doing business together and getting to know each other. But in VR, there was more: in VR, we screw around, play, laugh. An hour passes and no one notices. We talk a bit of business and then catch up a bit personally and then explore the environment. It’s less like a normal business meeting and more like taking a walk together (“Hey, look at that,” or “What happens if you do this?”) .

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Shooting Hoops in AltSpaceVR

There isn’t the same pressure to give each other your total attention, either. We might be talking while shooting hoops on a basketball court and then one of us wanders off to look at the view. Then we get meander back together and resume the conversation. Ultimately, it feels more like hanging out, which is what you want to do with people you like, whether they’re business colleagues, friends or family.

This feels like something unique about the medium.  I’m sure the feelings will change as we develop from newbies to veterans, but what I’m most curious about is how it will change when we try to work and learn in VR: what happens when we try to develop a pitch for a new product, or evaluate an opportunity, or brainstorm marketing plans?  And what happens if we try to teach or host a panel or coach a client or meet with a mentor?  It’s these questions that interest me most, and will guide my exploration of VR’s case to be the meeting platform of the future.

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