A Social VR Experiment

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Hi Everyone! This is Evelyn Eastmond here and I am guest blogging today for eleVR! I am a technologist and artist, interested in the design of media production tools. I’ve recently become interested in sculpture and have been curious about how the creativity of sculptural making can be enhanced with digital technology. My conversations with members of the eleVR team have led us to some new experiments which I’d like to tell you about!

Stack Space: A Need for Social VR Studio Visits

Over the past year, I have been exploring how to use my body to create personal sculptures using physical media of various kinds. An important part of this process for me is being able to show my sculptures to other artists for feedback and conversation. Inviting people in for these social studio visits fosters critique, which helps me understand if the objects are communicating my ideas effectively, or not.

 

A recent sculptural experiment with yarn, burlap, cardboard and pillow filling.

A recent sculptural experiment with yarn, burlap, cardboard and pillow filling.

 

My messy studio.

My messy studio.

 

One sculptor I enjoy sharing ideas with is Emily Eifler here in the eleVR group at HARC. Ideally, Emily and I would share studio visits periodically to talk about each other’s artistic experiments. Not only would this let us see each other’s sculptures in person and understand them in context, but it could also inspire us to collaborate on completely new works. However, Emily lives in San Francisco and I live all the way across the country, in Boston, so physical studio visits are impossible. To help with this, and given eleVR’s current experiments, we thought: Why don’t we build a virtual reality art studio space where we could upload our sculptures, enter the space as avatars, and have conversations? These thoughts became a proposal for a project we are calling StackSpace: A Social Art Studio in VR. If you’d like to read more, here is a link to the proposal.

 

Social VR Experiment 1: Beloola

Before beginning work on StackSpace, I thought it would be fun to explore existing social VR software. After a quick Google search, I decided to try Beloola, a social WebVR website with spaces you can enter. There is no headset needed with WebVR, so I used Beloola right in my browser, on my laptop, by myself. Although the main Beloola space (called the Welcome room) was empty, I did find some art-themed spaces via the built-in search bar (which was more exciting to me than other, more commercial spaces they had like one based on the Gap retail store chain). I found a couple of art gallery spaces that I enjoyed, including one where I got to watch a video of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger. I also created my own space using their built-in space creator, which was fun for a few minutes. However, since there were no other users signed into Beloola’s spaces at the time, I ended up feeling lonely and left the site altogether.

 

I got to virtually watch Andy Warhol eat a burger.

I got to virtually-watch Andy Warhol eat a burger.

 

Social VR Experiment 2: AltspaceVR

I was eager to try more social VR sites, but I wanted to feel less lonely in them, so I invited Emily join me in checking out the options. For the second round, she suggested we try AltspaceVR, another social VR app. AltspaceVR works with HTC Vive headsets and seems to have a healthy user base of dozens of users at any given time. The eleVR team has a Vive and my husband, John Basl, is a professor of philosophy studying the ethics of emerging technologies, so we also happen to have a Vive at home. Emily and I set a time last Monday to enter AltspaceVR together, but I was so eager to start that I put on the Vive headset, grabbed some earbuds, and entered the AltspaceVR Welcome Space a few minutes early while I waited for our meeting time…

 

A robot and a guy in a blue shirt, talking about computer specs.

A robot and a guy in a blue shirt, talking about computer specs.

 

The first thing I noticed when I walked into the Welcome Space was a couple of avatars, facing each other. After a few seconds, I realized that the conversation about computer specs that I heard in my earbuds between two voices (one with an American accent, one with a Russian accent) was coming from the two avatars in front of me. It suddenly occurred to me that I was witnessing an actual conversation between two actual people, and I felt simultaneously exhilarated and embarrassed to have entered a conversation uninvited. I muted my microphone and laughed for a few seconds, it was an incredible and surprising feeling to watch an orange robot and a guy in a blue shirt cheerfully discussing which brand of video card was best.

 

Spinning globe interface as Altspace chat room user list.
A spinning globe represents the Welcome Space user list.

 

I unmuted my microphone, regained my composure, and continued to explore the room. The next thing I noticed was a globe in one corner of the room that was continuously spinning. On it were little pins on various cities around the world, and attached to each pin was what looked like username handles. I realized then that all the avatars in AltspaceVR display usernames above their heads when you shift your focus to them. The globe was a convenient and comfortable way to find out that the cute orange android I had just heard was indeed from Russia.  After exploring more menu options, I also discovered a virtual selfie-cam feature that let you “take selfies”, so I took my first VR selfie immediately, of course.

 

That's me.

That’s me.

 

By the time Emily entered AltspaceVR, I found her outside the Welcome Space building, in the surrounding grassy area. She was still adjusting her headset and settling into the hybrid reality, so when I first saw her, her avatar was facing away from me and the head was tilted down:

 

My first glimpse of Emily in AltspaceVR.

My first glimpse of Emily in AltspaceVR.

 

We soon discovered each other’s avatars and, after taking an obligatory selfie, started exploring the landscape surrounding the AltspaceVR Welcome Space together. At one point, we discovered that the friendly and helpful blue-shirt-avatar-guy (whose name was ‘schmiddy’) was actually an official AltspaceVR employee, there to answer questions for people in the space. When he noticed that Emily and I were exploring the outdoors, he joined us outside and changed the sky from something cloudy and stormy to a clear, starry night. It was his way of welcoming us, and it me feel noticed, and happy. Emily and I climbed some of the structures outdoors so we could get a closer look at the new sky.

 
sky triptych

Emily and I climb the building to get a closer look at the sky.

 

Expressive Affordances in AltspaceVR: Hands and Voices

We finally wandered back inside the Welcome Space and, by this time, many more people had joined the room. Emily and I could hear conversations around the space, and it felt just like being at a crowded party in real life. Something about the groups of voices that got louder and quieter as you walked around helped give the Welcome Space a real sense of atmosphere. We walked around and met many people and talked about various, mundane topics. It was comforting to hear the range of voices, from male to female, old to young, with varying distinct global accents. It felt like a diverse community, just by standing there and listening to it. Hearing the intonations in people’s voices, too, gave the lifeless looking avatars more personality, and the majority of them were friendly and very, very nice.

 

crowd

The Welcome Space fills up with more users.

 

As we met more new friends, we realized that something important differentiated our avatars: some people had hands with free-range motion, and others did not. AltspaceVR currently works with three types of headsets: the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive and the Samsung Gear VR. Additionally, some users use the Leap Motion sensor combined with their HTC Vive to get more depth information from hands, without needing gloves or hand-held controllers. This discrepancy between user input capabilities meant that some avatars were more expressive than others, and made for interesting interactions. Mine and Emily’s avatars showed Vive controllers for hands that tracked our generalized hand movements. We had fun in front of the Welcome Space mirror taking mirror selfies as Emily placed used her controllers to give me bunny years, glasses, and a Vive-controller bra:

 

mirror triptych

Emily and I have fun with the controllers taking mirror selfies.

 

One user whose avatars showed no hands at all came over and told us he was jealous of our controller-selfies, so Emily went and helped him out by standing behind him, giving him a virtual hug.  She helped him feel, if only temporarily, a little more virtually expressive by moving her controllers to pretend they were his.

 

controller handsEmily gives another user without hand controls some temporary controller-hands.

 

It was no question, however, that the avatars with full hand motion felt the most expressive. Here is Emily being mesmerized by the moving fingers of her blue friend:

 

mesmerizedWe were mesmerized by avatars with moving fingers.

At some point, I mentioned to somebody how so many of the avatars reminded me of Daft Punk, so ‘schmiddy’ got control of the Welcome Space projector, played a Daft Punk music video, and started dancing and waving his hands around (since he also had a Leap Motion sensor). I was so excited by the music, and his dancing hands, that I ran over and joined him and danced with him for a couple of minutes. At this point I had almost completely forgotten that I was in a virtual space at all. I have no idea what I looked like dancing in place, with a headset on, in my husband’s tiny office at home.

 

dance

An avatar reminds me of Daft Punk and ‘schmiddy’ dances expressively with his hands.

 

Social VR: A Chatroom Resurgence

A couple of hours had passed by now, and Emily and I were getting tired of wearing our headsets, so we reluctantly said goodbye to our new friends and left the AltspaceVR Welcome Space. I was surprised by how quickly time had flown by while we were in there. The immersion was so smooth, the atmosphere was so comfortable and, more importantly, the people were so friendly, that our hours in the Welcome Space felt like a really good time.

The AltspaceVR experience reminded me of the chatrooms of the early web, circa 1995-1996, when the web was a more experimental landscape, and Internet strangers could discover each other. I remember using Microsoft Comic Chat often, and loving the feeling of the cartoon avatars that represented real, friendly and curious people from around the world. Recently, I have stopped using a lot of social media online as I discover how to create art with my physical body, but I sometimes reminisce about Microsoft Comic Chat and the excitement around the early days of the web. AltspaceVR definitely brought back those memories, and in a more embodied way.

 

comic chat resurgence

An old Microsoft Comic Chat screenshot, next to a photo of me and Emily climbing a tree in AltspaceVR.

 

Whether it’s for making connections with friendly strangers in a safe space, or shortening the gap between remote spaces, social VR feels pretty compelling right now.  The range of expression is already interesting, even with the limited capabilities of current head mounted devices and body tracking wearables.  Hopefully, though, newer and more flexible devices will come on the market soon that will support a wider range of motions and body types.

Because AltspaceVR had actual users, it was a much more social and engaging experience than Beloola was. I personally don’t think it was for lack of features or graphics, it just lacked real people’s bodies around in the space. The AltspaceVR experience convinced me that social VR (or AR) could be worthwhile to explore for something like our StackSpace idea.

So, even though studio visits with Emily right now are physically impossible, I am excited that they may soon not be virtually impossible.

 

Next Up: SculptrVR

Next, Emily and I hope to test out SculptrVR, which aims to combine social VR with sculptural creativity.