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The future of virtual reality is already here

Communities in virtual reality aren't a new trend.

When Meta, formerly Facebook, introduced the metaverse as the “next frontier” of how we communicate, they positioned it as the “future”. Imagine being able to virtually experience three performers across three areas of Japan, performing jazz in a bar created in Vancouver, to an international audience all within their metaverse.

But Meta’s future is here already, and it has been for a while.

When Meta was introduced to the world in October 2021 Mark Zuckerberg described the metaverse as the new frontier of the internet. This focus was reflected in Meta’s Q3 results in 2022 where Reality Labs, the virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) research unit of Meta, received 20 percent of the company’s overall investments.

Zuckerburg kept referencing the company’s dorm room roots during Meta’s first introduction but largely overlooked VR’s history. People have been creating projects and building communities in VR long before and since Meta’s announcement. Communities such as Helping Hands, a tight knit group of hearing and deaf members teaching and communicating in sign language, have formed. Filmmakers are directing their projects within VR, including Joe Hunting’s documentary We Met in Virtual Reality for HBO. Performers are taking advantage of the unique opportunities VR offers, too, with Triggerpull earning the moniker of “VR stunt devil” through their fluid physical acting in the virtual space.

And then there’s those who create and run clubs and bars in VR. Matt, who goes by the screen name of “Ariexe”, has been using VR for two and a half years – long enough to have tested tools that are now commonplace for VR creators. The genesis of his VR community and brand, Resonance, began in a virtual New York block party complete with DJ decks and milkcrates in a parking lot.

“In that moment I was like, I feel like my mum would be afraid for me being here. And I loved it, it like gave me such a dopamine rush,” he told upstart.

Matt wanted to recreate this feeling within VRChat, a platform that offers a wide range of social VR experiences that are largely driven by the community. Matt’s efforts led to Resonance Room, where graffiti glowed on the walls, there was a cramped rave called Claustrophobia, and a VR bar called Malice, inspired by a real bar that was hidden below a Domino’s that featured 100 beer taps. But it’s the aesthetic and vibe of these places that unifies them as a part of Resonance.

K Guillory, editor at The Metaculture, enjoys Resonance’s variety, hosting a wide range of music events.

“Resonance VR is a very dynamic and varied sort of club. I really like it because they not only play EDM, but they’ll bring in indie acts, they’ll bring in vaporwave nights, they’ll have all kinds of stuff – experimental stuff,” they told upstart.

When Matt spoke about his dreams of how the group could grow beyond the VR bar and rave it is now, it was in a passionate spill of words.

“So, Resonance isn’t really about the space anymore, it’s now just a group of people that are for these raves and for this raw, authentic vibe,” he said.

Live in 2022, the drummer, saxophonist and pianist of JazzInVRC performed at a Resonance event from Japan.

“That was fresh. That was brand new. Nobody has ever seen that before. Everyone was like wow, we need that again,” he said.

While Meta have run performances in the past, JazzInVRC was unique to western audiences.

“The saxaphonist had a virtual saxaphone [sic] , the drummer strummed their hands on the drums, and the pianist moved their arms side to side as their hands pressed the keys,” Matt said.

Not only were they playing  instruments within the virtual space in unison, but they were being broadcast to the world through CDN software – a system that aims to improve internet performance by having servers spread out geographically, making users point of access closer to their location.

There’s currently a CDN designed specifically for VR applications (a company called VRCDN), though Resonance began by using the live streaming service Twitch.

However, Twitch had a video delay of seven or eight seconds, which meant that DJ’s could drop a beat and have to wait almost 10 seconds to see the crowds’ reaction. VRCDN was able to limit this delay to one second, while Resonance uses a private CDN that boasts a delay of only half to a quarter of a second.

“We decided to stick with their network as its near instant feedback is integral to the immersion we aim to achieve,” Matt said.

But just like how Zuckerberg talked about how VR and AR pushes beyond what’s possible today, the freedom of VR allows people to explore their identity in new ways.

“People don’t see it but VRChat is like the window into the human condition,” Matt said.

“Humans are just innately creative and [their creations are] just an expression of who that person is usually.”

Zuckerberg said that this burgeoning industry will have many voices and many companies – it’s something too big for one company alone. Likewise, VR culture’s history is one of many voices that have developed what we have today.

In the future, as new companies and voices join VR, Guillory warns that too strict a moderation policy may lead to censorship that could restrict how VR artists express themselves on the platform.

“As much as people don’t really want to admit it when they run platforms, you still have to care for the life on there,” they said.

They relate this relationship between company and user to that of a gardener and their garden.

“I can plant all the flowers that I want, but if I, you know, restrict too much, if I’m guiding that direction too much, I’m not really letting things grow and showing that true potential,” they said.

“It can’t come from the top down, you’ve got to include the users in that conversation, they must have a voice as well.”

Because, in the end, what embodies togetherness more than people in one country, performing in a venue in another country, to an audience of people across the world?

Article | Sam McNeill is a second-year journalism student in Media and Communications at La Trobe University. You can find him on Twitter @samsheretoo

Photo | JazzinVRC Event provided by Matt (Ariexe). This photo has not been modified.

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