Today, I decided to dust off my wife's Oculus Quest 2 headset and try my hand at a bunch of social apps. I tried three apps:
The last time I tried each of these apps out, it was during Christmas time. Most of the folks in each app were just thrilled to try out VR for the first time. But did any of these Christmas n00bs survive to become enthusiastic users of social VR?
Altspace is pretty much dead. The one fellow who made Campfire – the one room everybody gravitates towards – got banned from Altspace for being "disruptive". If moderators are at war with the folks building user-generated content, then the service doesn't have long to live.
On the other hand, VRChat is still active but the experience is pretty much akin to hanging around a room of screaming 13-year-old boys. It's unlikely you're going to make any friends – never mind hold a real conversation.
Big Screen is the social app that's most likely to have a long term success, and that's because it's less about chat and more about a communal viewing experience. If you want to rent a movie and watch it with a crowd, it's pretty good. I happened to watch Jackass 3D with 12 other strangers, and I had a good time.
But is Big Screen a success for social VR? In its very small niche, sure. However, for social VR to take off, it's going to need something more alluring – something that both requires a VR headset and solves a big problem endemic to human nature.
The easy answer would be dating. Yet, the catch with a VR dating app is that if it's successful, people will stop using it. Why bother hanging around a dating app if you've found a date?
So what would motivate anyone to spend an hour a day on virtual reality? I believe it comes down to one simple thing: ownership. If you're spending time on a service, you want to ensure it's in your interests – and the best way to know if it's in your interests is if such a service gives you recognition. Ownership is one way to receive recognition on a social platform, but also the easiest to establish long term investment.
For example, if I'm spending time on VR, I want my own space. I don't want to rent it from a big mega corporation. Certainly, I don't want my space to be owned "virtually" either – I want actual legal title. Personally, I'd be happy if my data was on my own bare metal server – away from some random sysadmin who could take it from me for arbitrary reasons.
Now some Web 3 folk might suggest that the answer is NFTs. But why use a blockchain ledger when a simple receipt will do? After all, my motivation is to own space, not flip it.
A better suggestion is simpler: instead of building social apps with walled gardens, developers should instead build protocols that allow users to talk to each other across a wide array of games and services. These protocols should be platform agnostic. It should be accessible even on primitive hardware.
If developers want to build social VR, they need to focus less on "being social", and spend more time building utility and motivating investment.