Since Facebook changed its name to Meta and announced its plans to bring us all into the metaverse, its plans for an interconnected digital future have replaced crypto and blockchain as the industry’s go-to futuristic buzzword.
But the metaverse isn’t some far-off dream yet to be realized. For many, the benefits it would bring for online social interaction (from educational classes to dating and finding love) already exist in thriving online VR communities.
At this year Sundance Film Festival Documentary Competition, Joe Hunting is hosting the world premiere of his film We Met in Virtual Reality. The documentary was filmed entirely inside VR Chat using Hunting’s Valve Index VR headset and custom camera called VRC lens – a third-party program that allowed Hunting to create realistic shots as if this were a documentary set in the real world.
In its roughly one hour and thirty-minute runtime, the film gives a solid overview of what VR Chat and its worlds have to offer. There are creator spaces for world developers to meet and share projects, private areas for friends to catch up after a busy day’s work, fairgrounds to go on a romantic date, and even theaters to perform improv shows or exotic dances – it offers just as complete a world as we have in regular reality.
But the documentary also celebrates the incredible freedom that VR social spaces have to offer. Not only are people free to explore weird and wonderful places but they’re free to be themselves in a community that supports them and they’re free to fall in love with someone who lives thousands of miles away.
We Met in Virtual Reality features many different users but it mostly focuses on the stories of five subjects.
DustBunny and Toaster, and IsYourBoi and DragonHeart are couples who met in VR Chat. DustBunny is a fitness dancing instructor and met Toaster through VR dancing. IsYourBoi and DragonHeart also met through dancing. They are both performers and admins in the exotic VR dance community Club Zodiac.
Jenny, the film’s fifth subject, is a volunteer teacher in the Helping Hands community. She works at their American Sign Language school that exists in VR Chat and helps to create a supportive environment for all hearing, deaf, and hard of hearing VR users.
Through the stories Jenny, DustBunny, Toaster, IsYourBoi, and DragonHeart share, Hunting highlights the incredibly diverse environment that VR Chat and other metaverses can celebrate.
“It was really important for me to show off the progressive nature of the space,” Hunting tells me. “Just like the internet was when it was first developing, VR has these new incredible opportunities for people from diverse communities to get their voices heard and share experiences.
“There are LGBTQ + communities, spaces for people to talk about their mental health. There are places where people are free to express their sexuality and feel empowered through the VR avatars they use. ”
VR Chat is almost perfect
All that being said, how VR Chat exists today is not quite perfect. A more mainstream metaverse experience, Hunting believes, could make it easier to find a community that accepts you for you.
“A lot of people, myself included, who load into VR Chat for the first time are faced with harassment and issues that the internet generally faces, and it can take a long time for people to find a tribe that accepts them,” Joe explained .
“It can take a long time to find a community that accepts you because you really have to do that searching on Discord or other third-party social apps. A metaverse that combines the benefits of VR chat with the accessibility of something like Discord would be a massive help. ”
Hunting’s comments echo those of Lucas Martell, the creator of Walkabout Mini Golf (one of my absolute favorite Quest 2 games). When speaking to me earlier in the year Martell explained that his ideal metaverse would be just like Reddit – a social media platform with all these easy-to-find communities and worlds that users could hop in and out of through a single service.
Beyond better community-finding tools, Hunting believes another benefit of more mainstream metaverse spaces would be the introduction of integrated e-commerce. Creators can make money through the work they do in VRChat – a common side hustle is creating unique VR avatars for players to use – but a lot of it has to be organized off-platform.
If payment systems were built into VR Chat – or whatever metaverse platform you’re in – then it could help normalize the idea of paying for VR-exclusive content. Not only avatar outfits that you could try on in-game but also for services that players currently offer for free – like DustBunny’s belly dancing classes.
On a more personal note, Hunting admitted the biggest improvement he’d love to see come to VR has nothing to do with the Metaverse, but his own play space. “The space I filmed, We Met in Virtual Reality and all of my short documentaries in is tiny. I could walk maybe four steps before bumping into a wall, ”Hunting said chuckling.
A larger room would help, but more realistically Hunting would love to see more accessible VR treadmills or “slippery shoes” that allow people to move in VR without moving in real life. These add-ons are on the rise but they’re either too expensive or not widely supported enough to be worthwhile.
Despite having genuine and fulfilling relationships entirely online, a common topic of conversation among the couples in We Met in Virtual Reality is when they would be able to meet in reality.
DustBunny and Toaster were lucky enough to have met up once, but the Covid-19 pandemic and the travel restrictions it brought meant both pairs were stuck online only for a while longer.
Asking Hunting about this he explained that while haptics are improving they just aren’t there yet – and even if they were, there is still something special about meeting up in person.
Touring his film has given Hunting an opportunity to meet his documentary’s subjects in real life. Enjoying each other’s physical presence adds a dimension that VR and a metaverse cannot match.
But that does not mean that metaverse spaces are any less capable of fulfilling the important roles they have in their communities.
If you’re skeptical about the metaverse and the future it could bring I’d wholeheartedly recommend checking We Met in Virtual Reality when you get the opportunity. Audiences in the UK will be able to watch it on Sky in the not-too-distant future – and we’ve been told it will be released in the US soon, too.