Exploring and socializing with AltspaceVR on the Samsung Gear VR
There's a deeply social aspect to VR, you just have to know where to look.
Samsung Gear VR users know that almost everything you do in that environment happens in the Oculus Store unless you sideload something, and currently the list of things worth sideloading are either seriously underdeveloped or deep in Adult Content territory. The one noticeable exception to this right now is the Altspace VR beta, an alternative VR experience that focuses on a deeply social experience.
Here's a quick look at AltspaceVR Beta on the Samsung Gear VR.
If your only experiences in VR so far have been through smartphone-based setups like Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR, there's a good chance you've never heard of AltspaceVR. This virtual social experience has actually been around for quite a while, but until recently has been aimed at PC-based VR systems like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. This beta is the first smartphone-based effort from AltspaceVR with the end goal of bringing more users together in this unique VR experience.
Unlike most other VR apps, AltspaceVR is not one specific thing. It's not limited to just an arcade of VR games, or a Oculus Social-esque social viewing system, or even a mobile browser to experience in VR. It's all of these things, and a little more on top of that. AltspaceVR is an entire VR platform, with a focus on interacting with others while you explore the different VR spaces that have been created. There's a VR room that looks like a fantasy RPG-esque cabin with a roaring fire in the middle of the room, meeting spaces with artificial projector screens, and open air rooms for newcomers to explore and learn the interface. Each room is designed for you to pick a point for your avatar to "sit" and interact with the others in the room. Some of these rooms also have games built in to them, though usually these games are simple things like Flappy Bird clones in a space where anyone can watch and participate.
The best part of AltspaceVR is how open and friendly it is.
On the Gear VR these AltspaceVR rooms look almost like the opening room in the Oculus interface, only you can move around. A quick tap on the D-Pad mounted on the side of the device draws a set of crosshairs you can position wherever you want, and when you tap again your viewpoint is shifted to that location. You can spin around in space just like you'd expect, and see everything around you from whatever perspective you want. This is important because the room you're in isn't empty. There are avatars from other users, and these avatars are moving and talking with the voice and head gestures of the user wearing the headset in real life. You can virtually walk into a room and have a conversation with fellow VR users, and the microphone on your Gear VR will carry your voice into the virtual world for everyone else to hear.
These social rooms come in a few varieties, some of which are quite similar to Oculus Social in concept — which makes sense since this system came first. If you've decided you like the people you chat with in these play rooms, you can choose to follow their activities in AltspaceVR. It makes those people easier to find in all of the available rooms, so you can join them and they can join you when you see them online. You can watch Netflix or YouTube with your new VR friends, or you can surf the web through the clumsy browser embed mounted on one of the virtual walls. It's not much better than watching Netflix or trying to surf the web through the Gear VR apps, but some of that has to do with optimization on the Gear VR. Remember, this is very much a beta experience right now.
Access to the AltspaceVR Beta is extremely limited and invite-only right now, but there's already a lot of promise in this addition to smartphone-based VR. The best part of AltspaceVR is how open and friendly it is. Anyone can contribute to AltspaceVR through Github, and many do on a regular basis. Placing such a social focus on the VR experience is something we're seeing more and more of, but the overall point is clear. Being able to look at an avatar and speak to another person is an important part of the VR world, and there's going to be a lot more of this kind of interface as more users strap on headsets.