#90: Cymatic Bruce on Virtual Social Spaces in AltSpace VR

Cymatic Bruce is the head of developer relations at AltSpace VR, and he talks about the three main goals for their company:

  • Enable social interactions within virtual environments
  • Connect the 2D web within VR in order to share media and livestreamed events
  • Enable developers to bring in 3D web content into shared VR spaces

Part of what makes AltSpace VR unique is their mission is to create integrations with the open web. They’re building their application on top of Unity at first in order to ensure stable and accessible platform that performs well, but their long-term plan is to enable developers to create their own customized virtual environments.

Some of the topics that we discussed are:

  • Experiencing livestreamed events in VR with a collaborative web browsing component, as well as sharing animated GIFs and viral videos in a group context.
  • Plans to integrate with multiple HMDs and various input devices.
  • Their focus on non-verbal cues & limb tracking since facial tracking with an HMD is a difficult problem.
  • Their unique point-and-click teleportation solution to VR locomotion.
  • Integrating an open source audio solution, volume attenuation, positional VoIP & creating realistic sound profiles.
  • Plans for virtual environment customizations with via their SDK and API to create Ready Player One-like environments for expressing identity.
  • Their pragmatic approach towards solving the low-hanging fruit features of the Metaverse.

Cymatic Bruce says that part of what makes social VR so compelling is that memories are created based upon locations in VR, and it’s made even more salient when interacting with our friends and family. There are already people who are creating shared social experiences of watching TV shows and sports events together, and he foresees AltSpace VR being a part of how people experience these types of events in the future.

Be sure to sign up for AltSpace VR’s beta in order to check out some of their social experiences.

Theme music: “Fatality” by Tigoolio

Subscribe to the Voices of VR podcast.

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.955] Bruce Wooden: Hey, I'm Bruce Wooden, also known as CymaticBruce. I'm Head of Developer Relations at AltspaceVR. And Altspace is about really three main things. Taking advantage of what VR does naturally when you connect with other people. It's really powerful social interaction that you can have, provided the right software, where you feel like you're with someone and that you can feel like you're looking them in the eye, as opposed to other modes of communication. doing something interesting in that space. We're kind of starting with the low-hanging fruit, as it were, and going with a familiar 2D web. All the openness and wonderfulness about what's on the web and having that accessible in VR, having it so you can privately view it, you can publicly share it, you know, watch sports, YouTube, Hulu, Netflix, kind of that standard kind of thing. and do it together with other people, which has its own set of problems and challenges there. And I think the thing I'm most excited about is the final piece where we enable front-end developers, web developers, to transform their web games or web content or 3JS or WebGL, transform that into a VR experience, like taking those 3D objects that are already on the web and having them spawn into the VR space with the user. I think that's super, super powerful and has a lot of potential too. So yeah, it's very wordy and we're trying to par down the description. It's much better to just see what it does in person, but that's kind of what it's about.

[00:01:36.526] Kent Bye: Well, I think there's a clear thread here of social interaction, of group multiplayer, immersive experiences with other people. And I think that's a key component of that social aspect. And in thinking about, like, you know, Oculus being bought by Facebook, and we know that they're likely cooking up some sort of a social experience. How is it that you see that AltspaceVR is trying to make a mark of saying, OK, this is what type of social experiences we want to have for this demographic of people?

[00:02:02.660] Bruce Wooden: Absolutely. We realize that this is going to be territory that's very valuable and that's going to be a lot of competition there for sure. So one of the ways we're going about it is that we're going to be agnostic. Of course, you know, the Oculus Rift is a leader there and we are going to make sure that our software works there, but we want to make sure to expand and be available on other HMDs catered to a lot of different input. There's been a lot of online-based social interaction things that have been put out that really didn't succeed in a lot of ways and I think it really starts with this really high vision about what the overall experience is supposed to be. I think really what we're doing is getting a lot more practical. with what VR offers right now and what people would likely do with VR right now. Like what they would do together in virtual spaces at this time based on the capabilities of the hardware and what's already available. Again, going after the things that are Really easy to implement relatively and also getting the most bang for the work So the work we're doing with the web is not trivial and not easy But there's a lot of benefit that you get once it's working. So I think that's what's Separating us at this time and really being really very very thoughtful from a design perspective about UI about UX about type of avatars we have and really examining very closely what we want to enable people to do and and really being mindful that we want feedback and see what people actually do and providing that feedback loop between Us as the creators and the developers that will be helping us make content and the users that are actually consuming stuff. So

[00:03:40.783] Kent Bye: And so of these three areas that you had mentioned, you had just recently had an unveiling of what you were doing at the most recent SVVR meetup, the first time you're kind of publicly showing what it is that you're doing. Were you able to show all three of those or was it just one or two of those that you're really focusing on showing in these preliminary demos that you're showing?

[00:03:59.568] Bruce Wooden: Yeah, I think that we did a great job with showing off the sharing part of it, that middle one, where you're able to consume content. A lot of people were very impressed with the ease of use, bringing up the browsers, having them work, being able to kick something out to a public display so everyone in the room can see it. That's really cool. I think we got a little bit on the connection part when part of the demo where they had Mark and Kyle in there and they were in different places in the world or in the nation. We're able to talk to them and have a little bit of interaction there. So that was kind of hit and really the The build stuff, the build part is something that we're still working on. We're able to highlight that a little bit with having the planets appear in your VR space and that stuff that's pulled from the web. So it was a live working demo, but there's still a long way to go to make that super accessible for developers. And I mean, our aim is to have you add no more than a couple lines of JavaScript and have that functionality in your web page and add that on and, you know, your Three.js, WebGL, OBJs, whatever that you have already to be able to add those things in very, very easily. And that's a lot of work still to be done on that front.

[00:05:07.186] Kent Bye: Yeah, and when it comes to social interactions, one big thing that happens when you're talking face-to-face is that I can see you, I can see your body language, I can see your facial expressions. And one of the challenges, I think, with virtual reality is that facial tracking is not something that necessarily works from a camera-based or even 3D camera-based when you have a virtual reality HMD on your face. How are you addressing that issue of being able to bring the sense of presence from a face or facial expression when you're in VR environments in these social experiences?

[00:05:41.948] Bruce Wooden: Yeah, that's a tough problem and we recognize that as well. Yeah, I think we're going with as much non-verbal cues as we can get in from the head movement, head tracking, putting something since we can't have the facial tracking and there's not really anything out there that's going to do it well immediately. putting something on the avatar that at least is going to give that simulation of contact and connection there. As we have more peripherals that will be available for users of VR systems to incorporate those, make sure that your avatar is reflective of what input that you're using. From a VR, if you only have a mouse, maybe you have no arms, as opposed to maybe you have a real VR or control VR and you have limbs and stuff that you can manipulate. But yeah, I think the facial thing is really, really key. There was some interesting discussions that we've had at AltSpace about what should the avatar look like? How do we make this warm and empathetic and have a connection, but not have it be hollow or creepy or fake? We want this to be really genuine. I think there's still a lot of discussion and debate around that. How do we do that exactly with the hardware? I mean, we're going off of what most people have and most people They have a mouse, a keyboard, they have the Rift, and what else do they have about that? Other than that, you know, once you get diving into all these peripherals and all these lines, it gets very messy. So, yeah, we're still looking at what we can possibly do to bring that, or maybe that's something that's punted and we just do as much as we can with nonverbal outside of facial expression.

[00:07:14.720] Kent Bye: And was there any type of user feedback that was surprising or that you took back that you had to change part of what you were doing in order to make a better experience?

[00:07:25.663] Bruce Wooden: So far, the user feedback from what we've unveiled has been very warm and people have been very excited about it, so that's great. People are definitely interested in our control scheme that we've come up with, with teleporting and things like that. I don't think there was anything that popped up necessarily in this latest reveal that is making us like, oh my gosh, we need to change focus. But I think some of that will come after we have 50, 100, a few hundred users all using it once and kind of observing what do those people do or what are those people doing. and try to cater to those use cases and enable what people already want to do. Sometimes it might be very simple things like as alt spacers in the office we have a build-up and one of the first things we did was play hide-and-seek with each other and it's a very simple, very natural thing that is such a low-tech interaction in a high-tech space and finding more emergent or interesting things like that and helping enable those or encourage those type of things I think is going to be an interesting adventure so we'll see what ends up happening there.

[00:08:32.683] Kent Bye: Yeah, I think as I'm thinking about it, I'm just sort of realizing that most of my web browsing that I've had has been a very solitary experience. You know, I'll look something up and I'll sort of read at my own pace. I'll skip around and dart around and, you know, not really read every word on the page. And so when it comes to cruising and surfing the web in a social experience, what kind of emergent behaviors have come from that?

[00:08:56.328] Bruce Wooden: Yeah, that's a very, very interesting thing. I think some of it is what people are already trying to do. Like you might have seen some pictures on the net, like the true friend, quote unquote, the guy that went to the baseball game with his laptop, got his friend on Skype and turned the laptop to face the field. There was another person that told me that, you know, she and her mom love True Blood, so they get on Skype and one of them turns a laptop toward the TV, and they were watching True Blood remotely but together. And I think there's going to be a lot of that, a lot of, like, event-focused, like, let's watch this movie, let's watch this game, let's watch this championship on Twitch. Let's, you know, very event-focused type behavior is something we're expecting, where let's all gather in this baseball themed room and check out the baseball game and talk crap you know to each other and have another browser with the fantasy game stats or whatever on there on the side. Some stuff has been really just kind of talking about things and on the fly shooting something to the public display that you talk about a quick YouTube video kind of what you would do normally if you're in the same room like dude look at this video or look at this funny gif or whatever there's a lot of that that goes on too back and forth. So, yeah, that's what we're seeing to start out. So I don't know what else is going to end up happening as we get deeper in and see what people actually do when they're using this stuff, especially when it happens so fast. It's like being in a room with a TV and everyone has a remote to change the channel, kind of, and see what that, you know, it could be a metagame just out of that, like who can beam the funnier thing to the public screen or something. So we're kind of excited to see what happens.

[00:10:31.737] Kent Bye: Yeah, that whole sharing events I think is interesting because I do think that, you know, getting together, having a Super Bowl party or something and having that more frequent because there is some potentially maybe you want to have a Super Bowl party with people that live in a different time zone and it's not feasible to kind of like watch the game together.

[00:10:48.851] Bruce Wooden: Yeah, that's exactly the type of thing. VR really has this powerful ability to connect people that otherwise would not be able to connect. So we can have these folks that, you know, other side of the country, other side of the world, and they're able to just chill and talk to each other and enjoy some passive content or, you know, cheer for their team during the big game. Yeah, I think there's a lot of value in that and it really is not the thing you hear a lot about or is focused on a lot because we're early adopters, we're really into gaming, we're really into how far can we push this experience, how creative we can get, and just chilling with your friend watching the game in VR doesn't sound all that enticing comparatively. I think it's one of those uses that we talked about how would I want to use VR I would love to just you know hang out with some cousins I haven't seen in a while that would never get a chance to talk and just you know enjoy some random whatever it is you know or watch some funny YouTube videos and go back and forth and have that cheerful banter that we would do if we were on the same couch together in the same room.

[00:11:48.923] Kent Bye: And I think one of the other big components that is more subtle, but when you get it wrong, you kind of notice it. And when it's right, it's still subtle, but it makes a huge impact, is the audio. What are some of the considerations that you're doing in terms of making an audio experience that makes it more immersive within virtual reality?

[00:12:06.789] Bruce Wooden: Absolutely. Audio is a huge, huge thing for us. Absolutely huge. So we ran through a lot of VoIP solutions. Ended up going with some open source and did a lot of work and tweaking to get some really, really good positional audio between people that are in the same space. So we have these huge spaces. that are great, but also because of the positional voice, you're able to have clumps of people, as you would at a house party or something, that are talking, that are unable to hear each other's conversations in different places in the room. That's super powerful, to be able to look up on a balcony and see that there's four avatars up there, but you can't hear what they're saying, they're talking amongst themselves and their head motions going on. It's really surreal to witness that. The other thing that we have in our build right now is volume attenuation, like you put something on the big screen, if you're close to the screen, it's loud, it's a great volume level, you back away from that, you go outside, you go upstairs to the office and the sound fades away. And having that really dynamic 3D sound or sound that dynamically changes its volume with distance, is such a force multiplier when it comes to immersion and quality of experience. It's something that when you talk about social VR, the sound can make or break it for sure. So we're still on that track, really working out all the kinks of positional VoIP, making sure that's flawless and just works. And also with any public content that's displayed in the room that doesn't overbear the room and making sure that you get a realistic sound profile from those things that are in the environment.

[00:13:40.706] Kent Bye: Yeah, and environment, I think, is another important component. I mean, a lot of times that I've seen some screenshots of alt space and it looked like a lot of sort of normal rooms that you would expect to see where you would hang out in reality. The thing about virtual reality is that you could make it anywhere. You can make it in space or floating into things that are kind of physically impossible. And I'm wondering if you've started to explore these different environments that are kind of beyond what you can do in reality and how that impacts these social interactions.

[00:14:06.620] Bruce Wooden: For sure. I think we've started with a little more based in reality and also a bit minimalist because the intention with that last part of what we're about, about the building, the intention is for the user to be able to throw their favorite cinemagraphs or gifs on the wall into picture frames and customize their space and eventually pull 3D objects out of the web and have that just be a part of their space. If you want that awesome statue, great, pull it out of the web and place it on the desk and there you go and you fill your personal alt space up with your own items. So there's that aspect of it. But also, we've definitely been exploring places of different size and different themes, getting a little more sci-fi, a little more fantasy, but not really assuming too much about what a person wants to do with their space and give some options for users. Like down the line, in the long term, we're looking to really have a lot of customization around people's spaces. We want to make sure that we facilitate that, and we'll have some great, awesome spaces for you to use. And it'll be available from the start. But eventually, we want folks to just run away with our API and SDK, and take it away, and make their own awesome spaces there.

[00:15:17.490] Kent Bye: Yeah, it reminds me of the Ready Player One personal chat rooms that people have, that they have it really decorated in their expression of their identity. It sounds like this is kind of where that's going.

[00:15:27.825] Bruce Wooden: For sure, yeah, love that, love that. Seeing Rayplayer 1, you have this private room, it's like invite only, there's all this cool stuff that's in the wall and just all these objects and it's just really, really awesome to express what this person is about and what the feeling of the room should be and everyone just hangs out, you know. I really, really dig that, something that we're excited about, so that'll be very cool. It's not meant to be an escapist type thing, I think it's more of a an augment to your life, I guess. You know, you have this other space you can be and interact with those people that you might have a harder time interacting with through regular means.

[00:16:04.788] Kent Bye: Since SVVRCon, there's also been quite a lot of development and evolution of the web VR with what people on the Chrome team and also Mozilla working on trying to bring in the web into fully immersive virtual reality. When you think about, you know, WebGL and the web and these 3D environments, how are you working with each of these technology stacks? Are you going at the level of web VR? Are you just using the Unity output to be able to generate WebGL content. Well, I guess that's going to be in Unity 5. But I'm just curious about, you know, how you're approaching this third component of using the web and 3D and where you kind of see this going.

[00:16:44.440] Bruce Wooden: Absolutely. I think to start what we're doing is beginning as an application. We're using Unity. We want to make sure we have accessibility, we have performance. It's very, very important in VR to make sure that performance is solid. So it's starting there. and enabling a lot of the 3D content that's on the web, enabling that WebGL to be brought into the virtual space with you. A lot of the stuff that's happening with this straight interface with your VR equipment, straight from the browser, straight from the web, that's very, very exciting stuff as well. But I'm not sure if we'll be moving in that direction very soon. I think what we're starting with is really building up a suite of tools to enhance web content for VR and also having a stable app that will perhaps graduate into a platform down the line. But yeah, I mean, it's very exciting stuff. And it's great that we have Chrome and Firefox doing some VR-specific things. That is fantastic and super exciting. And we're in contact with those guys as well. It's great to have that area of support as well. And when we're talking about doing web things in VR, it's being attacked in a number of different ways. And yeah, so I'm not sure what the game plan's going to look like for us when it comes to just in-browser VR along that track. Maybe, maybe not. We'll see.

[00:18:04.027] Kent Bye: How do you see Altspace playing into the evolution of the Metaverse?

[00:18:08.910] Bruce Wooden: Oh man. As I said before, it's coming from a very practical point. We kind of want to start from the bottom and go up. I think a lot of the Metaverse discussion has been very idealist, and has been very like, yes, it will be this grand vision, and it will be this, you know. And that's great. As Palmer and John Carmack have already said, it's a moral imperative for this to happen. There's a lot of people that are very, very excited and motivated to make the metaverse, however that looks like, come to pass. I think what we're starting is, we're from a starting point that's a little bit more, let's get the low-hanging fruit, let's get the stability, let's get the performance there as far as making a good VR experience and let's bring in what people are already familiar with and build upon that. I think that's kind of the tack that we're taking with AltSpaceVR and who knows where the future might lead. It could be a situation where we're able to expand and scale up and do something a lot different with the product but for right now I think we're We're trying to be very practical about the vision and what we want to do with it for the time being.

[00:19:18.533] Kent Bye: Great, yeah. And finally, what are some of your final thoughts in terms of, you know, how you see this evolving social space and AltSpace's role in that?

[00:19:28.317] Bruce Wooden: Absolutely. Man, it's an exciting time. I think social VR has a lot of connotations that comes with it because of what the past of social gaming or this word social in this gaming space is what it's meant. And it's meant things that are kind of lame, I think. Overall, you know, thing that's intended for your, you know, your mom and grandma. And I think we're going to play a role in changing those expectations of what's said when you say social VR. I think it's one of the most powerful experiences I've had in VR, have been with other people. I've been in Altspace or in Minecraft VR, hanging out with other people, in Riffmax, in VRChat, and you have these experience that it's like you're somewhere else, you're in a location, and you have that memory based on that location. It's a super powerful thing. So, I would hope to see Altspace make a serious mark in changing any perceptions of that word social when it's next to VR and really unveiling the power and importance of just facilitating those basic connections in VR with other folks.

[00:20:33.018] Kent Bye: Is there any other timeline or other things in terms of next steps that people can kind of look forward to?

[00:20:38.396] Bruce Wooden: Yeah, you can go on altvr.com, sign up on our beta list for beta access. Starting with a slow rollout, make sure we have a solid plan for scalability. And then from there, we want to make sure to get a lot of feedback from people that are in alt space and finding out exactly what people want to do when they're together hanging out in VR.

[00:21:00.176] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:21:01.877] Bruce Wooden: No problem. Thank you.

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