This year, AltspaceVR, a startup building ways for users of virtual reality to meet up and attend events together, has been busy producing stand up comedy shows, podcast tapings, and Echo Space—a weekly dance party hosted in VR. Every Wednesday for the past 30 consecutive weeks, a live DJ has performed at The Spire, the virtual nightclub Altspace created for the event. But to show up at work in the virtual club, these DJs drag their real world bodies to a low-key office building in Redwood City, California.
I went to the virtual club, but first checked out what goes on outside the servers to produce these events.
On the fifth floor of the Altspace office building, I'm standing next to Ernie Trevino, a San Francisco DJ wearing a VR headset, who is getting sweaty pumping his fists in front of his DJ booth and a live feed of the the virtual club projected on the wall ahead. It's an odd sight, since the audience here is only myself and Nate Barsetti, an Altspace employee and the producer of Echo Space. Nonetheless, Trevino is hard at work moving his body and flicking the dials on his DJ controller; which he does by periodically slipping off his headset to see where his hands are. When he's inside his headset, though, he's in the middle of a three hour set at a very 'real' party.
The physical setup looks like a DJ booth from any other nightclub. There's a DJ controller with a sound mixer—though it looks weirdly misplaced under the halogen lighting and next to someone's desk. The key ingredient here is the Xbox Kinect, which is tracking Trevino's body motion and rendering his movements into the virtual club. This allows the people at The Spire to see his avatar moving like he's really there hyping the crowd.
"It's not unlike real life," Trevino told me. "In real life, there is an exchange of energy you can see and feel. Holding the crowd in VR was interesting. I was able to see when they liked what I was doing by the use of emojis and seeing their avatars dancing." Users in Altspace are able to express their feelings with emojis that shoot out from their avatar's head, by clicking on them from a panel of options while inside the space.
The following week, safe in my bedroom at home, I slip into an Oculus Rift to check out Echo Space for myself. When I spawn into the club, it looks like Second Life, yet made to feel like an afterhours party on the top of a skyscraper. The sun is setting off in the distance and there's pulsing electronic music flooding the room.
Just like I'd behave at a real club, I find myself awkwardly standing at the edge of the room staring at the 15 or so dancing avatars, some of whom are launching emojis into the sky.
Eventually I see Barsetti's avatar by the DJ booth, so I take my avatar over to say hi. When my greeting goes fully ignored, I discover that both he and the DJ, are in a different rendering of the night club.
Altspace employs a system called "FrontRow"—which works by replicating a particular avatar host or performer across copied versions of the venue. When one room fills up, users are spawned into new ones while the performers and host avatars are "mirrored" into the duplicate rooms.
Though this may facilitate a more intimate experience at something like a comedy show, one drawback may be a feeling of isolation. I could see Barsetti and that evening's DJ, but couldn't interact with them.
Apparently, this is a well understood phenomenon amongst VR creatives. Matthew Burdette, the lead environment artist at Oculus, coined the term "Swayze Effect", named for the 1990 film Ghost starring Patrick Swayze and described it as "the sensation of having no tangible relationship with your surroundings despite feeling present in the world." Altspace hopes to overcome this by allowing users in the spillover rooms to click a button and raise an emoji hand, so the performer can see it and choose to temporarily pull them into the original room to interact.
Recently, Echo Space took it's physical setup on the road, and on November 23 streamed a DJ performance from The Great Northern—an actual San Francisco nightclub—into The Spire. Going forward, the ability for performers to attach a VR component to a real world performance, may further drive interest in the use of the technology, especially for those who hate going out.
I appreciated how much Echo Space recreated the feeling of being at a club and now only wish more of my friends were ready to join. If VR becomes more widespread, I'll be down to meet up at the club—in my pajamas at home.