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Alone together: my weird morning in a virtual reality chatroom

March 25, 2016 | Telepresence Options

AltSpace_VR_Avatars.jpg

I'm standing in front of a decorative garden talking to a guy from Germany about PC specifications. This is not really what I was hoping for from the future of online social communication.

The place I'm in is AltSpace, a virtual reality social world. It was launched in 2013 by AltSpaceVR, a small startup based in Redwood City, California. Although it's early days for virtual reality as a consumer phenomenon, there's been a lot of interest in the idea of virtual chatrooms - AltSpace VR has already attracted more than $15m (£10.6m) in venture capital funding, and Mark Zuckerberg has talked about multi-user VR as the future of social media. There are alternatives to AltSpace, such as vTime and VRChat but this one is getting a lot of interest due to its multi-platform compatibility and array of features. That's why I decided to don a HTC Vive and spend an hour in the virtual world of chat.

It's been ... odd.

AltSpace_VR_Menu.jpgWhen you boot up AltSpace you're dropped into the welcome area. It's a sort of futuristic living room complete with huge windows looking out over a peaceful, neatly trimmed garden. I keep expecting Kevin McCloud to pop by and tell me how much it cost to build. On one wall there's a vast screen that gives hints on how to customise and name your avatar. On another, there's a menu display that shows different rooms and areas to explore. There's a diary of social get-togethers so you can meet up for karaoke or to play, say, Dungeons and Dragons. There are also special events such as standup comedy evenings and talks. In a couple of days time, for example, Emmy-nominated writer and comedian Heather Anne Campbell will be here doing virtual improv with Miles Stroth.

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