Tonight, more than 9,000 people will fill Red Rocks Amphitheatre outside Denver to listen to Vance Joy, an Australian singer-songwriter with a name like a game-show host and an abiding love for ukulele. He'll be playing songs from his most recent album, gracing the same stage that hosted U2 during their now-iconic 1983 performance.
But those 9,000 people won’t be alone. They’ll be joined by others watching it live—perhaps as many as in Red Rocks itself, perhaps more. These other spectators will be watching from home in their virtual-reality headsets; courtesy of a new app called Oculus Venues, they’ll get their own panoramic three-dimensional view of the show.
Vance Joy at Red Rocks isn’t the first time people have been able to watch a live event via VR. That’s been possible since 2015. And multiuser VR platforms have been able to accommodate small crowds of people for just about as long. But as Venues' inaugural event, this will be the first time they’ll be able to do it together, hundreds or even thousands at a time—talking with their friends, meeting new people, seat-hopping at will, and even ascending to a private viewing box if the crowd gets to be too much.
Oculus has never done anything like this. Its parent company, Facebook, has never done anything like this. When you’ve got hundreds of strangers gathered together, there’s a lot that could go wrong, and technical glitches are only the beginning. People could be bored; worse, people could be assholes. And on a stage as big as Red Rocks, with technology as young as VR, "there’s no such thing as bad press" decidedly does not apply.
So as anodyne as the choice of artists might be, tonight’s Vance Joy show masks a surprisingly risky move for a pair of companies that are at the forefront of a larger conversation about privacy and user safety. Yet, they designed Venues—in purpose and in practice—to anticipate and minimize that risk, and to open up a new category of experience they think may well represent the future of VR.
From People to Activities
When Mike LeBeau moved to London in January 2016 to build and lead the team in Oculus' first European office, he was already primed to think about making virtual reality a technology of connection. He’d been in a long-distance relationship for a while, and was frustrated by the limitations of most communications—even ones that not so long ago seemed wildly futuristic. I just wish I had something more to do than just stare at her on a video chat, he thought then.
So that’s what most of the people in the new London office, who were working on the company’s so-called Social Experiences products, started grappling with. Not LeBeau's relationship specifically—now that he was living in the same city as his girlfriend, it was no longer long-distance (besides which that would be a very strange thing for a boss to ask)—but the question of what to do together in VR. And by the end of that first year, the UK outpost had come up with an answer: Rooms, a virtual space that let people play simple games or watch videos together.
This idea was new for Oculus, but it was of a piece with thinking that had already emerged at Facebook. There was already a handful of companies out there making VR worlds that people could congregate in, but in all those worlds the point was the activity, not the people. The activity is what brought people together, and by connecting through those activities, new relationships could form. Facebook, though, already knew who your friends were. That reversed the flow; instead of working on giving you involved games to play, Facebook was dreaming up things like letting you hang out inside 360-degree photos and videos, or taking selfies of your avatars together.
Oculus Rooms continued that tradition. It offered "people-centric quality time," as LeBeau describes it, rather than activity-centric quality time. But in London, the Social Experiences team knew that this wasn’t the endgame. "The ability to feel socially co-present with somebody in VR is probably its biggest superpower," LeBeau says. Rooms—along with Facebook’s own VR meeting place, Spaces—was about as constrained as social VR could be, and the London team wanted to explore more broadly.
If you want to think about social VR like Facebook and Oculus do, then imagine a set of three criteria. There’s synchronicity, whether or not people are experiencing something virtual at the same time. There’s symmetry, whether or not people in a space are in VR. (Facebook Spaces' ability to place a video Messenger call between VR and IRL, so that one caller is human and the other is an avatar, is an example of asymmetric social VR.) And then there’s familiarity, whether or not the people in VR know each other.
Oculus Rooms is synchronous and familiar. Facebook Spaces, the same. But when it came to relaxing familiarity, LeBeau’s team immediately thought about live events. "When I think about hanging out among people that I don't know, I'm not looking to immediately get to know every one of them," he says. "Going to a concert or a sporting event or a tech talk or a movie—these are all things where you gather around people you don't know, but it's not about the people you don't know. Yet, it wouldn't be nearly as fun if it was just me alone. They're adding to the vibrance."
That’s how Venues was born. But getting to here took a little longer.
When LeBeau and his team set out to craft the perfect live experience in VR, they eventually discovered a paradox. You need to give people the feeling of being immersed in the actual live event, and also the feeling of being immersed in the virtual crowd—and if you’re not careful, those two things can jeopardize each other.
Or so they found out when they settled on what LeBeau calls a "hamster ball" design. In this early iteration, everyone was grouped on a giant plane, like floor tickets at an arena show. People could toggle into a navigation mode that would let them move around within a crowd, then toggle back into "content mode," where they’d be re-immersed by the performance.
This led to what they called the "Roomba problem," in which the team would wind up bouncing from place to place, backing up, turning around, and just basically becoming totally disoriented. But there was a bigger issue as well: People testing this early version of Venues had no idea what they were looking at. "It just wasn’t close enough to anything people could understand," LeBeau says. "Just because you can in VR doesn't always mean you should."
Thankfully, there’s a converse to that rule: just because people did it before VR doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. "We started thinking, 'What if we could use the vertical space more?'" LeBeau says. "'What if you could bank the seating and then you can kind of curve it around'—and I was like, 'Oh. We built a coliseum.'"
The question the Greeks had cracked millennia ago turned out to be just the thing Venues needed. LeBeau’s team started putting users into the new version and they got it. They were immersed in the content, but they also felt the crowd. They felt, in other words, like they were there.
And that’s the entire point of VR. The entire reason Facebook bought Oculus in 2014 for more than $2 billion. "Our investment in this whole field is really pointed at the fact that we believe VR is the medium that will enable the sort of social connectedness that you can't achieve in any other medium," says Hugo Barra, Facebook’s VP of VR. Venues represents a huge piece of that connectedness. You don't live your life surrounded only by your Facebook friends—so why would you do the same with VR?
Inside the Coliseum
When you launch Venues from within your Oculus Go or smartphone-driven Samsung Gear VR, one of the first things you notice is how many people there are. Most social VR platforms cap their experiences at 30 or 40 people for performance reasons. (When you’ve got that many people moving around interacting with each other and the world in VR, things get a little creaky on the server side.) But Venues, being designed to work with those headsets, is a constrained experience in its own right—you can change seats, and you can look around, but you can’t move around—which helps cut down on the lift significantly. That enables the app to split its total audience into manageable but still surprisingly big sections of seating Oculus calls "shards." Each shard is nine steeply banked rows of 28 seats that are sectioned into curved four-person pods, for a grand total of 252 people.
The other thing you notice is that you know more about those 252 people than you expected. A menu immediately shows you any Facebook friends who are also attending. (While you don’t need a Facebook account to use either of the headsets, you do need one to use Venues; more on why in a bit.) You can also see those friends’ friends, providing they’ve opted in to sharing details of mutual commonality like Pages that you both like. You can also opt to sit with anyone you like, providing there’s an empty seat next to them.
All of which can be, frankly, a little bit scary—especially in VR, where being embodied as an avatar makes talking to strangers just as nerve-wracking as it can be in real life. "We're trying to look for areas where we can add a special sauce," says Rachel Rubin Franklin, Facebook's head of social VR. "Something like saying 'hey, you like this indie band too'—it's not like we're revealing your whole life story, but just a little bit to say 'hey, the door's open for you.' That's where Facebook's connectivity comes in."
For all the good things that presence can unlock—from confidence to intimacy—it can also open the door for some less enjoyable sensations that we've never encountered in our online lives. Like, say, having your personal space violated.
(If you don’t want anyone sitting next to you—and let’s face it, there are plenty of great reasons you wouldn’t—you can hop to a solo viewing seat, where instead of seatmates you’re flanked by the walls of your box. Said walls are helpfully emblazoned with the logos of whichever company Oculus partnered with for a particular show; for the Vance Joy concert, that’s AEG Presents.)
But the same constraints around Venues that allow it to work on Oculus' most popular (and affordable) devices are the same things that make it a relatively safe first step to take into the unknown. In virtual reality, "presence" is that phenomenon by which your brain and body accept your virtual surroundings as real. Yet, for all the good things that presence can unlock—from confidence to intimacy—it can also open the door for some less enjoyable sensations that we've never encountered in our online lives. Like, say, having your personal space violated. Abusive behavior online is bad enough, but when it happens to an embodied avatars, the psychological effect is indistinguishable from it happening in real life.
This has become one of social VR’s great crises—and one that Oculus and Facebook, because they only connect people who know each other, have largely avoided up to now. But it's still one that Facebook and Oculus profess to be determined to get out in front of. "If you get a shitty text on your phone, you're not gonna never use your phone again," Franklin says. "But if you go into an app and somebody has physically gotten in your face and abused you, you're gonna throw your headset across the room and never pick it up."
Part of Venue's appeal, then, is that you can’t physically get in each other's faces; you’re confined to your seat. That, combined with other Venues tools like being able to mute or report people—or even record someone behaving badly and then submit that to moderators—makes Franklin feel confident about the app's ability to disincentivize general terribleness among people who are sitting about a meter apart from one another. "It's a really great way to be open, put in some abuse prevention and make sure it's moderated and that it's a good place, but there's an inherent restriction," Franklin says.
That’s also exactly why Venues requires a Facebook account, despite being an Oculus product: it makes everyone that much more accountable. "We have your authentic identity," LeBeau says, "and that means you're hopefully less likely to abuse in the first place—but if you do, we also can more easily confirm that you're out of this venue, and can't just spin up another account and show up again. As we think about our role in social VR longer term, this is one of the areas we're most excited to contribute."
But that contributing doesn’t start until tonight, when Vance Joy takes the stage in front of 9,000 fans and who knows how many curious headset owners. It’ll snowball pretty quickly after that: tomorrow night is a live showcase from New York's Gotham Comedy Club, presented by NextVR; another 16 events are scheduled in June, from MLB games to a Chromeo concert; the rest of the summer adds International Champion Cup soccer and movie nights to the mix.
And there’s no question that LeBeau and his team are already thinking about updates. "One of the biggest things that I'm really excited about is that sense of interactivity that we could create," he says, "either with the rest of the crowd or between the crowd and the real world." If you like comics doing crowd work, imagine that crowd being distributed all over the world.
But you have to start somewhere. So for now, there’s just one Australian singer and his ukulele. "I could have spent another five years building things before we shipped anything," LeBeau says. "I was like, no, let's ship something. Let’s learn from it."
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