VRChat was one of the first social VR applications, and they’ve been holding regular virtual meetups for the past couple of years. VRChat has a Social SDK that allows Unity developers to add social functionality, and so they have been focusing on doing guided tours and group explorations of user-generated worlds. I had a chance to talk to co-founder Jesse Joudrey who had a lot of really interesting insights about the unique qualities of the VR medium to be able to facilitate these types of shared experiences where the narrative is created through the multitude of shared perspectives. VRChat wants to push the boundaries of being able to explore surreal worlds while still maintaining a suspension of disbelief that’s helped with social presence.
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VRChat holds regular meetups every Sunday as well as the weekly talk show of Gunter’s Universe every Tuesday. Here’s a video a recent meetup with the users exploring various user-generated worlds:
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Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio
[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.
[00:00:12.034] Jesse Joudrey: I'm Jesse Jodry. I'm a co-founder for VRChat. VRChat is a social platform for user generated content. We have our users every week are building more and more stuff that they want to see in VR. And we provide them the client and the tool set to allow them to do that most easily.
[00:00:30.697] Kent Bye: Nice. So I think the last time that I talked to you was at SVRCon, and I think since then you may have become a part of the River program at Rothenburg Ventures. So tell me a bit about what that's been like and what that's enabled.
[00:00:43.643] Jesse Joudrey: Yeah, that was a great program. We had a great time. We spent the months between September and December of this year working with the Rothenburg folks. And the program was there for young business people to kind of get their feet wet in the investor space. So, we learned a lot about how to get investors to listen to you, how to present to them, and everything that a company needs to know in order to really maximize the value of their time they have with an investor.
[00:01:14.065] Kent Bye: Great. So does that mean that you are still continuing to seek investments and to continue to grow VRChat?
[00:01:21.073] Jesse Joudrey: We are indeed. We've raised some money as a result of that program that's been successful for us, and we're continuing to raise some more. We're working to close out our seed round very soon.
[00:01:31.484] Kent Bye: Nice. So what's that going to enable? What's new in the world of VRChat?
[00:01:35.179] Jesse Joudrey: Well, that's going to allow us to staff up and I mean a lot of people have made the point that a VR startup should set aside enough cash to last for a couple years in order to kind of weather the next year. They called it the gap of disappointment today during the keynote and I think that that's a very astute observation that There's a lot of people out there who are predicting extremely good things for VR in the extremely short term. And while I believe that those extreme good things are going to happen, I think that, like John McIntyre was saying, that they're going to take a little bit longer than the optimists feel.
[00:02:09.242] Kent Bye: And so when I've seen some of the videos of what's happening in VRChat, it seems like there's been a strong emphasis of user-generated world building. So tell me a bit about these worlds that you see users that have been creating and how that kind of differentiates you from other social VR platforms at this point.
[00:02:29.435] Jesse Joudrey: Well, so the worlds people are creating are like artistically very diverse, like the art styles that people are coming up with, strange neon things, things that can and can't exist. And there's been a lot of people kind of exploring what virtual reality spaces mean in a conventional way. What can we build that we couldn't build in reality? Maybe it's large, maybe it's colorful. And just kind of exploring the space got us to the point where we were until recently. But now people are actually starting to bridge the gap into more dynamic behaviors. So people are starting to build game-like experiences. People are starting to stretch the limits of the tool set that we give them to enable them to put in more interactive elements into their worlds. Such as simple games, simple multiplayer games that people don't have to worry about the networking themselves. They just kind of set up the environment and the rules and we'll handle all of the details and getting all of the avatars in. For our demo day at the end of Rothenburg, we built a room which was basically our take on the Toybox experience. So it's social, as many people as you want can join you, but there's all these kind of toys laid around you that you can pick up. We concentrate on more game-like things, so there were things you'd see in games, magic wands, a sword, as soon as you pick up the sword it bursts into flames, you know, you pick up the magic wand and you point it at your friend and you expel fire from it or, you know, the old classics, you know, semi-automatic or fully automatic submachine gun you can pick up and shoot down books and targets in the environment and like, So we have this environment where you can pick up these toys and play with them, and the next phase is the game. So right now it's kind of fun to pick up the toys, but what if you could pick up the sword and then go on an adventure? What if you could pick up the magic wand that spits fire and go on an adventure? The toy set was kind of the first step towards that, but I think we should be able to have those full-fledged adventures, go kill the dragon, you know, go explore the dungeon, kill some orcs, find the treasure and kill the dragon at the end of the dungeon. That's the kind of experience we're building to and we hope to kind of get there sooner rather than later.
[00:04:47.258] Kent Bye: Interesting, yeah. The thing that makes me think of is that this year at XOXO Festival there was some of these social games that they have, like one example is two rooms and a bomb. where you are basically having a split team of maybe 15 to 20 people and there's different people that are going back and forth and there's a president on one side and a bomber on the other side and you don't really know you know who some of the people are but you don't know who everyone is and there's sort of It's sort of like this social game where there's a lot of just social interactions of these trust moments of like, will you show me your color? Will you show me what your role is? And you're kind of just interacting face to face in a room and they kind of have these rules where you're sending hostages from side to side and the goal is for the bombers to blow up the president at the end and the goal for the other team is to protect their president. It's a little bit of like, who's the bomber, who's the president, and how are we gonna be able to get this information through social engineering? It sounds like, to me, it's hard to get together 15 to 20 people to play games like that in your neighborhood when not everybody may be interested in that. But I could see a future where there's gonna be a lot of these games like Werewolf or Two Rooms and a Bomb that people go into a social virtual reality space. play these social games that are based upon the foundation of interacting and talking to each other.
[00:06:13.163] Jesse Joudrey: See, that type of experience is actually perfect for what we have here, because the rule set is simple. It's easy for a user to generate content with that rule set. They can script it themselves and build it, because the depth of the game is in the socializing, right? And that's something that we provide the tool set for. So little experiences like that kind of complement what we want to do as well. So, Oculus Share is a great place to go for short experiences, right? But few of them are social, right? What if VRChat was the space where you could go to for all of those kind of experimental things and all of them were social, right? You could get in, you could play a game of that, you could play a game of Werewolf, you could do the dungeon, you could go jump out of an airplane, you could play a little pool, whatever. You know, whatever you were looking for at that time, but have the variety of those experiences all social, all with a common identity. You wear the avatar that you want through all of these experiences and go from there.
[00:07:06.480] Kent Bye: And I've often heard from people when they talk about virtual reality that we don't remember it as, say, watching a movie. We actually remember it as if we lived in an experience. So our brain encodes it as if we were there. And so because you've been in VRChat from a number of these years, I'm just curious about some of those moments and those experiences that you've had that really stick out.
[00:07:29.439] Jesse Joudrey: One of our users called Tom23 built an implementation of what he thought hell would be like. It had great audio presence that it was like there was screaming in the distance and discordant chords that made you feel weird. And it was a long linear journey in which you started at the beginning of the level and you kind of went through these different spaces until you finally saw his version of the devil entombed there and a bunch of us were running through this space together just like staring around but it was this huge group exploration activity like a fellowship that was kind of traversing this space together you know just impressed you know every time we'd round a corner and see something new. All of the experiences that I feel strongest about in VRChat have one kind of thing in common like that, in that they were all a part of a group, you know, and they were all usually discovering something. Sometimes they were entertaining bugs that we'd let slip in, that people found that, you know, if they stood in just the right place, they'd get bounced way up to the sky. And, you know, but we'd all discover that as a group, and it made the whole thing, like, really surreal, and it made it exist. It was something you, like, Jumping to the sky like that isn't something you get to experience in real life. So when you get into a situation like this and it happens to you, it's kind of this magical moment. Going into Gunter's universe, you know, and hearing people talk about the projects that they're passionate about. and just kind of going through people's imaginations. So at one of our meetups, one of our users imagined a town with an alien abduction in it. So you can sit in the chairs in this house, in this town, and you can lay in the bed. But if you lay in the bed, you're actually teleported into a UFO where you get this kind of experience of waking up surrounded by aliens and then you get dropped off in the mountains. And then he's there too because he's like, you know, tour guiding with you. And so you're there with a group and he's explaining kind of like his thought process as he built this. So this group dynamic is the thing that makes all of those things feel the most real, the most like I've been there.
[00:09:41.837] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to actually try out The Void in Utah, and they had two major experiences that I was shown. The first one was you are walking in their space, which uses all these redirected walking tricks that fools your mind into thinking that you're basically walking. forever when you're really just kind of walking in circles, but the first one was just this exploration of this cave and you have a torch and you're just kind of like looking around at all the different art and then you go up on an elevator and then it's all about like discovery and exploration and not about having any specific goal and And then, you know, the next one they put in, it was a co-op player and you're running around and you're shooting aliens and spiders. And it felt like, okay, let's go to the next thing. Let's kill all the things. And then, but you know, in my mind, there wasn't like real, it was like, I knew I wasn't really going out and killing giant spiders and aliens. You know, like my mind was not tricked at all. It just didn't seem plausible because it was like, I know I'm at the void. I am not in a spaceship destroying things. But yet when I was doing the more exploration, it just felt like more realistic to me, more plausible. And so I wonder about that in terms of like, if these, like you said, these, you know, explorations of this hell environment, you know, it's kind of like a, an art installation that everybody's experienced together rather than sort of going out on these quests to actually, you know, conquer something.
[00:11:08.911] Jesse Joudrey: I think that more research needs to be done in both directions there. I think that there's a lot of attention, even at the keynote today, about talking about experiencing things that we've never experienced before, that we can't even conceive of because we're too grounded in reality. But then there's this other side that says, yeah, but if you actually stray more than a little bit from reality, my suspension of disbelief breaks and it becomes less something that I'm familiar with. And both of those things need to kind of either merge or diverge. Either way is fine. That's, I think, where VR can kind of grow in these spaces. Sure, let's do some things that line up with our expectations, and let's do some things that kind of totally diverge from our expectations. And they don't need to feel the same. You don't need to get the same emotion from each one, as long as something valuable comes from each. And I think that we support people who want to do all of those things. If you want something that's realistic, or if you want to go completely fantastical.
[00:12:05.798] Kent Bye: What's one of the more fantastical experiences you've had in VRChat?
[00:12:09.502] Jesse Joudrey: OlivierJT has built this thing called JumpChat, which is not for the weak stomach, I'll tell you that. But essentially, if you can imagine a wind tunnel on its side, where you stand at the top and jump down into it, and it's not wind, the floor is actually a trampoline, so you're bouncing hundreds of feet into the air. And then he's kind of built these jumping puzzles around it to see if you can get from one place to another, nailing all your jumps. And then there's a room at the end, and you make it there. It's like, OK, you won when you got there. And that was definitely, it's got the double-edged sword. It's a fantastical environment with Olivier's classic art styling of kind of poly-minimalist, but good colors and contrast. And his characters from the Synthesis universe are throughout it. So it's got a great art style, but it's also got this fantastical jumping, which even on a trampoline, a fall from that height would kill you in reality. So it's got the physical unreality and the visual unreality that go with it.
[00:13:11.860] Kent Bye: You know, it seems like with virtual reality, you know, the way it was put to me by Eric Darnell, he said that, you know, films are kind of like telling you a story of an experience and that VR allows you to generate a full entire experience that then the people who go through it can generate their own stories from. And so do you find that, that people are experiencing these things and then, you know, being able to kind of generate their stories from that?
[00:13:35.196] Jesse Joudrey: I think the VR does do that, but I think that social VR does it more. Not just us, but the other social platforms as well. People, when they get together, and they're kind of all interpreting events that go on around them, are a lot more able to construct a story out of those events. Because everyone's got slightly different interpretations, and I think the story emerges from the best of each of those interpreted events. like storytelling for humanity was like our earliest art, but only because groups could get together and Generate and receive these stories as groups and so that I think is like one of the strengths of social virtual reality get these people together and Really have like a free-form story come from that
[00:14:19.313] Kent Bye: Yeah, it's really interesting because Alex McDowell today in his keynote was talking about how, you know, in more ancient times there was tribal stories and myths and archetypes that were kind of told through the culture and that we kind of, with technology, moved to this, you know, fracturing of telling stories from a singular perspective, whether it's a camera, you know, being able to film it from a director's perspective or whether it's a novelist who's writing from their own perspective. that he said, interestingly, that VR is able to actually return us to this ability to have multiple perspectives about it. So it sounds like that going through an experience together that is kind of out of this world gives us this capability to listen to each of those individual perspectives, each of those stories, to be able to come up with more of a collective story that seems stronger than a singular perspective.
[00:15:14.142] Jesse Joudrey: Yes, that's true. And I think it's interesting though, not to counter that, but to point out that a lot of people that are interested in VR storytelling are trying desperately to figure out how to constrain that view from many perspectives back to one. They're trying to figure out how to make the player focus on a single event and how to Constrain them the way they have always done in film. I think that an interesting way to take VR storytelling It's not something that we're particularly working on but like if someone was doing VR storytelling and you could make it into a multiplayer environmental thing so so that your story could support 10 or 15 people standing in the same space while the story was going on, each of them necessarily from a different perspective, that that would be a really interesting way to tackle that problem and kind of force you to think about story in a new way.
[00:16:03.728] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think that, you know, the way that Andrew Stern of Facade and now he's working at Playable and doing a lot of AI and interactive drama and, you know, the way that he phrased it to me is like, you know, drama is just life with all the boring bits taking out. So I think when directors and storytellers are trying to tell a story that has some sort of dramatic angle or tension, then they are trying to filter and edit down towards this specific arc. But yet, how do you do that if anything that's creative is necessarily constrained in some way? So I can see both sides of that, of trying to, as a storyteller, tell a very specific story. But yet, how can you construct an experience that requires it to you know, probably Sleep No More is the one example where there's 21 parallel stories and 100 rooms, but it's also more of an individual experience, so less of a shared group experience. So I could see kind of both where, you know, you have one person go through their own, you know, combinations of narratives to try to piece it together, but also what would it be like to, as a tribe, go through an experience together and then construct a story that requires all those perspectives to actually figure it out.
[00:17:15.879] Jesse Joudrey: Yeah, absolutely. I'm not about constraints at all. I want everyone to explore everything. I think that any of these things could lead to the best option or a great option, to say the least. This field is so young that we need to explore all of these avenues to figure out what the medium really will support. And it took Mobile probably three, four, maybe five years to figure out some of those things. And it was all through a bunch of developers trying just about every possible way to solve a problem. I mean, those solutions... I think that the last couple of years and the next couple of years... I mean, VR research has been going on for 50 years now or something, right? But I think the last couple of years and the next couple of years will compose the most hours spent in VR. You know, so much so that it would probably surpass all the VR that happened before it. And in that kind of environment, there's going to be so much new things and so much new experimentation that's never been conceived of, even in 50 years of research, that I can't wait to see where some of this stuff ends up.
[00:18:16.862] Kent Bye: Now, one of the biggest challenges I see facing social VR is just this critical mass part, you know, in order to actually make it social you need people and either having ongoing events or, you know, fixed times where people around the world are getting together or perhaps you're going to record things and you can kind of witness things but not have live dynamic interactions. But it seems to be a challenge of, you know, you have all these worlds that are being created, but if anyone were to go to any of these things at any given time, would they see anything? So how is VRChat kind of addressing that problem?
[00:18:51.557] Jesse Joudrey: Well, we're actually starting to grow through the events-only model. Because there's enough users right now that are generating content, there's a decent chance that there'll be somebody online who's testing the world that they've just built or the avatar they've just built. Not 100% uptime or anything like that. But right now, we're already getting to a point where you can log in and have a chance to encounter somebody else there. And we definitely, front and center, when you join, if there's somebody online, you'll see that their world is there and that it's open and you can join it. So, we show people the data that says, hey, you know, you can go ahead now and when you enter this level, you'll see somebody. You don't necessarily get to explore the level you want, but you do get to meet the person you want. And we hope that if we continue to, you know, encourage developers and encourage more users to... to come, and more users brings more developers, more developers brings more users. If we can keep that wheel spinning for a while, we'll get to a point where there's always some people there to hang out with, there's always something new to see, and it's what we envision.
[00:19:52.422] Kent Bye: Yeah, it seems like this is mirroring real life in some ways, that when you're in a city, you want to go to the bar where all the cool people are. And so, is there a location where all the people hang out within VRChat?
[00:20:05.000] Jesse Joudrey: There isn't right now. No, basically what happens, more often than not, is there'll be an event. Gunter's Universe is a great example. If you come in then, then that's where you go. Sunday meetup, we kind of converge on a specific location first, but then it's about the touring of the user-generated content that's new for that week. We go from place to place with the developers of that place. experience it together. And then during the week it's whoever is kind of available online probably testing the content that they've built. So no there's no centralized location for that stuff.
[00:20:44.410] Kent Bye: And is something like Gear VR something that would even be feasible? Because I know that a lot of these worlds that are being generated are complex enough that you almost need a desktop computer to drive. But I'm just curious, it's like a challenge to be able to optimize it to be able to have an experience where some people would have a full experience and maybe there'd be a reduced fidelity experience where people could actually get on in their mobile Gear VR headset and be able to actually go through these.
[00:21:09.561] Jesse Joudrey: Yeah, it's something that we don't have our final plan on yet. We have an Android build, but it's not, you know, the things you talk about are exactly the reasons it's not available right now. The solutions we consider is like having worlds that are like mobile ready and other worlds that are not, and avatars that are mobile ready and other avatars that are not, and if you come in and Avatar that's not mobile-ready will kind of just replace you with a mobile-ready ghost, right? All of these solutions are things we've considered, but right now we're really concentrating on the PC tethered experience launch, right? So we know we have some issues that we need to get resolved by that time. Our two new locomotion schemes are coming online very soon. They should improve the user experience in a lot of ways. But those are what we're concentrating right now on. And we'll get to the gear when we think that it's appropriate to do so.
[00:22:02.080] Kent Bye: Yeah, they talk about the eternal September, which is this concept that when you launch, there's going to be a whole flood or influx of new people. And I imagine that from the perspective of VRChat, that's something that would be perhaps quite welcome.
[00:22:15.727] Jesse Joudrey: Absolutely, but we're actually considering some soft launch options as an online product. We also don't want to like launch and fall down or launch and immediately get bombarded with trolls or people doing inappropriate things, right? So while we're anxious to get users in and improve the social experience for everyone, we don't want to make any bad decisions to rush that. But I think that we'll have something pretty compelling by the time the hardware is released to users.
[00:22:44.013] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what that might be able to enable?
[00:22:50.978] Jesse Joudrey: I got a short answer for this one, Kent, and I'm glad you asked. The funny thing is nobody ever asks me what the potential of real reality is. The potential of real reality is actually a subset of the potential of virtual reality. Virtual reality can basically do more, I think, than real reality even can. So I think that the discussion about the potential of virtual reality is wide open. I think that it can do everything we can think of and more.
[00:23:18.972] Kent Bye: Well, I would disagree, because I think that there's still going to be things within real reality that are not going to be able to be replicated. For example, maybe a massage, for example, or just something that requires other humans. And you can imagine all the different haptics that are involved with two humans. So when I asked that question to Tom Furness, the way he phrased it was that he would hope that some people would go into virtual reality and then it would actually make them appreciate real reality more than VR. And I think that, to some extent, that has happened to me, where I feel like I appreciate more the qualities of real reality, having been in VR. I think that it's less that real reality is a subset of the potential of VR, but I think that there's like a Venn diagram, where there's things that both can do, and then things that real reality can do, and that virtuality couldn't.
[00:24:09.142] Jesse Joudrey: So with modern-day HMDs, I totally agree. I'm thinking more like beyond, well down the line, because I think in the near term that the potential of virtual reality is definitely not quite there. But, I mean, when they describe virtual reality, somewhat pretentiously I might add, as the final medium, as has been said before, they're not necessarily talking about the modern HMD, but more of the transition from screen to surrounding. And with some of the technologies that hopefully come out of that, not just what we consider today as haptics, but of a much more maybe neurally integrated surrounding system, I think that we can see it go pretty far.
[00:24:50.863] Kent Bye: Yeah, direct neural input. Exactly.
[00:24:53.225] Jesse Joudrey: Yeah. Well, I think that more than VR is an offshoot of previous things, I think that you could say that the neural input is more related to virtual reality.
[00:25:06.152] Kent Bye: OK, great. Well, thank you so much. Thank you. And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.