I was disappointed when I discovered that Carleton Dileo, co-founder of HelloVR, did not in fact have a giant ginger beard. We'd spent an hour exploring a field together, playing with sticks before settling down by a campfire to watch the birds overhead. Of course, that was virtual Dileo and the beard belonged to his avatar, but in that hour he'd become real to me.
MetaWorld is a social VR experience built with Improbable's SpatialOS technology (so the world is persistent) and offered the most interesting interactions I've had in a virtual space so far. Admittedly, I only saw a tiny section of the 10,000 square mile open world HelloVR is promising, but in that section I played chess, swapped stories by the campfire and made a real human connection with another person.
"I had this kind of ... What's the word I'm looking for? Empathy for the environment"
"You know what's interesting is that the environment that you and I and Carleton hung out in, really is mostly prototype. It was never intended to live beyond meeting you, really," says founder Dedric Reid.
"It's still around and I was just in it yesterday and I logged in and the sun had set and there's this plane in the world where the light sort of bounced off the tree in a certain way and I thought, 'Wow, I could come here everyday at this time and have this feeling, and I think I might.'"
Reid fell asleep in that virtual field, with its trees and grass and birds, and when he woke up he had a realization.
"I felt guilty getting rid of it. I had this kind of ... What's the word I'm looking for? Empathy for the environment, which is as a designer it's achieved the goals set, right? Which was kind of to learn from it. It's not like as polished as I'd like it to be, nowhere near as polished, I have tons of reasons to get rid of it, but I have this strong empathy for that particular environment that we're just going to leave it there, leave it as is."
It's understandable if you think this sounds strange, but I know my brain really struggled when I pulled off the headset after an hour in that field. Suddenly I was in a dark demo room with Reid, Dileo was gone and all of my cavewoman instincts went into panic mode. I wanted to go back in.
Reid wasn't surprised to hear it. He isn't new to the social VR space. Prior to starting HelloVR he worked at AltspaceVR, another social experience. It was after seeing Worlds Adrift, Bossa's open world game also built with SpatialOS, that he realized he might be able to create his "holy grail," a social world that was both massive and allowed real human connection. He met Dileo (at a baby shower) and the two experimented. After a few false starts the two came together in a virtual space and everything clicked.
"It was Carleton in the world and environment presence, social presence, and I think at that point I knew that this is kind of the baseline for every piece of software that I planned to make. It's just kind of the core element for anything I want to be a part of from that point on."
As with so many virtual reality projects currently in development I feel like I've seen proof of concept, and now I'm excited about the potential. The final world will be filled with wildlife built with IBM's Watson and natural resources, I hit some mushrooms with a stick like a naughty little kid.
"You began your experience in a tent so you have that sense of ownership. You have a place to come from where other social VR experiences just sort of pass you into a room full of people and immediately you develop fight or flight," says Reid, spotting my innate social anxiety a mile off.
"VR is going to be where we unleash artificial intelligence"
"The VR market's really tiny, chances are you're going to log into this world and there's probably not going to be anybody around so what's going to keep you there, what's going to keep it interesting for you? We believe it's going to be the cognitive element which is likely going to be driven by something like Watson and machine learning that just feels alive and, for all intents and purposes, is alive. That's kind of the next step and, again, I don't know what that looks like. I can only imagine. I feel like we're sort of repeating history in a way. The first discovering social presence and environment presence and a vast scale world and next these lifeforms."
We joke about squirrels providing technical support for bemused players and people who behave aggressively being banished to troll island, but the idea of interacting with NPCs is also fascinating. Humanoid or not, their virtual lives become more interesting when they exist in a persistent space like the one SpatialOS provides.
"I had a moment in [Steam's] The Lab, actually, it was one of the robot experience where ... What's the robot's name? It's a female robot ... Where she looks at you? Oh my God. Immediately I thought, okay, VR is going to be where we unleash artificial intelligence because I had this feeling that she could have convinced me to do stuff if she had intelligence. She could have convinced me to stay in the world and built a relationship with me. That's going to happen. We're worried about robots taking over the world. No, they're not interested in our world, they're going to be interested in VR. That's what I think is going to happen."
MetaWorld is available for pre-order now.