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AltspaceVR Wants to Bring the 2-D Social Web Into 3-D Virtual Reality

Using VR for shared social experiences is further along than you might think.

Eric Johnson

At a gathering of virtual reality developers in Mountain View, Calif., last night, AltSpaceVR CEO Eric Romo couldn’t help but comment on the irony: The group organizing the event, Silicon Valley Virtual Reality, was doing something virtual reality could not.

People come to physical meetups, Romo told the crowd, because “we want to feel connected to other people.”

The technology is still a ways off, but AltSpaceVR is one of a slew of companies trying to make socializing in VR more like real reality, and said Thursday that it had raised $5.2 million in seed funding to do so.

At SVVR, Romo and his developer relations director, “Cymatic” Bruce Wooden, debuted a promising demo of that social experience that combined the Oculus Rift headset with a standard mouse and chat microphone hooked up to a MacBook Pro.

In the demo, Wooden showed off the ability to project three private virtual monitors around his avatar, which he could inspect by turning his head. Each monitor was effectively the window of a standard 2-D Web browser, showing sites like CNN, Twitch and a simple game.

Wooden then teleported to a different room, where he found the avatars of two other demo-ers, one logged in from Ohio and the other in Colorado. The three of them talked as a giant fourth monitor — visible to all players, and synchronized so that everyone was seeing the same point in the video at the same time — played a YouTube video.

“When that joke happens, everyone can laugh at the joke at the same time,” Romo explained of the synchronization feature.

With a few clicks, Wooden then stopped the YouTube clip and replaced it with the content of one of his private monitors, the livestream of a fighting game on Twitch. Romo said any normal website can be displayed on one of AltspaceVR’s virtual screens.

The company hopes, however, that developers will use tools it has created to go the extra mile. An API developed in-house lets them convert 2-D Javascript content into 3-D scenes that can be explored in VR with “minimal changes,” Romo said. As an example, Wooden turned a 2-D guide to the solar system into a 3-D projection, with planets and moons orbiting around his avatar’s head depending on where he walked.

The demo was reminiscent of Facebook’s ambitious pronouncements, when it acquired Oculus back in March, that virtual reality could be the future of not just games but also communication. However, Romo said he founded the company back in January of 2013, more than a year before the acquisition, under the name Qualia3D.

“Qualia is a feeling that you get when you see a thing, but not the thing [itself], so I thought it was a good virtual reality word,” Romo said. “The only people who ended up liking it took way too many philosophy courses in college.”

He added that he hasn’t yet tried the products of other virtual worlds-in-virtual reality companies, including Second Life’s VR adaptation and High Fidelity, a separate but similar project launched by Second Life creator Philip Rosedale. Having seen Rosedale demo High Fidelity, though, Romo praised his attention to details like eye tracking but said even more primitive social VR can carry emotional weight.

The first time Romo demoed the software for Wooden, before the two were working together, both men were wearing VR headsets. But Wooden — the new guy — quickly busied himself looking around and playing with the environment.

“I was saying something to him, trying to get his attention or something and his avatar, like, turned and looking at something else,” Romo said. “And I got this feeling like, ‘Hey, man. I’m talking to you! You should be looking at me!’ I actually felt that emotion of, we’re not making eye contact. And when he looked, it felt okay.”

AltspaceVR’s investors include Google Ventures, Foundation Capital and Tencent, the latter of which has profited from mobile and PC gaming but has no formal virtual reality presence as of yet. Romo said that although those investors do, of course, want to make some money in the end, the company is focusing on getting users rather than potential monetization options for now.

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