Virtual reality is often a very solitary activity, using imagined worlds to firmly separate the user and the rest of humanity. But a growing number of apps are transforming the virtual experience into a highly social one, and at the top of the tree is ‘sociable network’ vTime.
Already out for Gear VR and Cardboard, and set for release on Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Playstation VR and Google Daydream by the end of the year, the network is completely cross-platform, and has already collected a slew of accolades and positive reviews.
Most recently, vTime was named a Gartner Cool Vendor for 2016 in the consumer mobile market. Put simply, vTime is on the up, and looks set for virtual reality stardom.
“It’s incredible. We’ve been thrilled and delighted at this validation because, as you can imagine, it’s quite frightening doing something as audacious as what we did right at the start of the lifecycle,” says vTime CEO Martin Kenwright. “You need to be very brave. But I think, now that people have realised the potential and the opportunity, we’re just in remarkable shape.”
vTime’s success is likely to be largely due to its unique offering. Placing users in avatars that animate in response to their voice, the system allows friends, family, colleagues and even strangers to meet up in a stunning selection of virtual environments, and hold conversations as if they were in the same room. And, in part because it suffers from fewer buffering and lag problems than VOIP services such as Skype, it’s quickly being embraced by users as a reliable and regular means of online communication.
“Anyone can create a web-based front-end using graphics and UIs, but I think the idea of VR is for people to fall in love with it,” says Kenwright. “We want to create ultimate presence and immersion, to suspend disbelief. And I think that’s what’s unique about what we’re doing.”
Perhaps the biggest reason vTime is doing so well is its technology, and in particular its ability to run with high levels of stability while rendering striking and very detailed environments. It’s an impressive show for a smartphone-run VR, and one that could only be achieved by a team that has some pretty serious experience behind them.
Back at DID, before even Evolution, we worked on some of the first VR in the world, and worked on secret projects for the military, that even now I don’t know if I can tell you about
But Martin Kenwright isn’t just any tech CEO. His last company was gaming legend Evolution Studios, which he founded and ran until 2007, and before that he founded Digital Image Design (DID), the first company in the world to develop accelerated 3D games for PC. Some of the vTime team have been with him since the beginning.
“VR is something we’ve always been heavily involved with. Back at DID, before even Evolution, we worked on some of the first VR in the world, and worked on secret projects for the military, that even now I don’t know if I can tell you about!” says Kenwright.
“I felt when VR was coming it was like ‘ah, finally, our time has come’. And I genuinely think we have the talent, the skill and the resources to do something quite incredible, right at the start of the lifecycle. Something incredible like we did with [Evolution Studios PS3 launch title] Motorstorm, and just what we’d done before countless times: create an app of genuine use and value – beautiful, slick, lovely – that you’d want to use every day, that adds real value.“
Taking on Facebook
When Kenwright first put together the team that now is vTime, his sights were not on VR, but its augmented cousin.
“I thought, initially, it would be more about AR than VR, and we massively invested in AR. We’ve got some incredible demos that people should see one day from years and years ago, movies, everything in augmented reality,” he says. But that changed in 2014, when Kenwright started to see the social potential of a virtual reality device being touted by a certain startup.
“vTime really all began just over two years ago when we were gearing up for GDC,” he explains. “We’d spotted and liked this little company called Oculus and wanted to talk to them about our ideas for a social network in VR. But they cancelled the appointment that day, in San Francisco.”
That day, as it turned out, was quite an important one for Oculus.
“I was really angry and then we found out that Facebook acquired them that very day for $2bn. So there you go, the mould was set. I ended up thrilled and angry at the same time. Damn, my idea was good!”
But that didn’t stop Kenwright from ploughing on with his VR social network idea, regardless of the fact that the biggest social network in the world would likely be a major rival in the future.
“When I reflected on this acquisition I thought ‘how crazy would you be to go up against the format holder now and try and do this?’” he says. “But again, when you understand the calibre and skill we have, I figured that our team could create a consumer front-end that would be the envy of the world. We could do it – very few could.”
As it is, of course, vTime is growing by the day, while Facebook is yet to release a VR version of its social network. What happens in the future, of course, remains to be seen, but for now Kenwright’s offering is certainly top of the pile.
For many developers dipping their toe in the VR pool, the obvious first target is the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. After all, they’re the highest quality headsets around, and have been enthusiastically embraced by well-off early adopters around the world.
However, vTime focused instead on mobile, producing an experience that feels extremely high-quality for a budget VR solution while positioning itself as available to the techy and the non-techy alike.
“With vTime we made big bets and big gambles on certain things. We bet big on mobile,” explains Kenwright. “We felt VR, like digital photography, would go the same way. You know, not bigger digital cameras, but cheaper, smaller, built into mobile devices. We thought the low end would be the mass market; not the high-end PCs with tethers and things.
“I’m not belittling that, but I’m just saying, to be able to build something from the ground up working on the lowest end devices, that scales across all formats, was really the idea; to create an incredible vision of what we think social environments could be like in virtual reality.”
This approach may prove to be vTime’s making. More and more people are trying the platform, and for many their first headset will be one with a smartphone in it. And with Google’s Daydream set to dominate within a year, this is only going to widen the smartphone market at a pace that far outstrips the high-end offerings.
“For us the focus was creating the first baby steps to the metaverse, you know, in terms of having something with a really low barrier to entry that normal people could use everyday, for people who don’t think they like VR,” adds Kenwright.
The very notion of a social network in virtual reality is an intriguing one, but vTime has widened this definition to a “sociable network” in a bid to distinguish the service from more traditional shout-to-the-world approaches.
“Using the term ‘sociable network’, rather than social network, is to explain that it’s a whole different format,” explains Kenwright. “Social networks simply aren’t very sociable. You post stuff on your own using your phone, tablet or PC.
There are stories – and they’re all true – of people falling in love, meeting someone and getting engaged in vTime. They may actually be getting married in the metaverse
“You can only be sociable when you’re in the same place, face-to-face, talking to someone. There are a lot of lonely people out there, a lot of people who want to escape and meet up and just chat and share and be sociable.”
And for some, vTime has certainly filled that niche. “There are stories – and they’re all true – of people falling in love, meeting someone and getting engaged in vTime. They may actually be getting married in the metaverse!” he exclaims.
There are, of course, many features to encourage interaction. Aside from the regular worlds, where up to four people can meet up in spaces that include the Arctic, a Victorian train, a space station and cliff face, users can also host meetings inside 3D photographs, or in a specialist image viewing room.
However, while many are using the platform to chat with family, friends and potential friends, businesses are also starting to see a serious benefit to the platform.
“There’s also businesses using vTime for meetings instead of Facetime or Skype, people giving spoken foreign language lessons – all sorts, really,” says Kenwright. “They’re using vTime for the reason we designed it: to allow people to do what they’ve done since the beginning of time – meet up with family, friends, strangers and sit around telling stories – chatting, singing, laughing, all that stuff. The difference now is that by using vTime you can be anywhere in the real world but still be together.”
vTime in context
Although vTime is already enjoying considerable success, with downloads already in the “hundreds of thousands” despite not yet being out on some major platforms, Kenwright has his sights set on something greater.
“We see vTime becoming the very heart of users’ VR world,” he says. “There are clues for where vTime is going in the next couple of releases, but as you can imagine these are just the first babysteps to where it’s going.”
Kenwright is staying tight-lipped about exactly what the company has planned in the long-term, saying “expect the unexpected” when asked whether there were plans to connect the technology to other platforms, but it’s clear that there are plans afoot to take the service to new heights.
“We can’t tell you too much of our strategy, our roadmap, but obviously people who look back over the past 30 years can see what we’ve created, we’re just fairly addicted to creating fantastic products we’re proud of,” he says.
“We’ve always tried to be the very first or the very best in every sector we’ve been in, and we don’t fear anything. All we want to do is have fun and be happy. And you know, if you’re happy you can do anything.”
Future of VR
With vTime set to be a part of virtual reality for the foreseeable future, what does Kenwright predict for the industry as a whole?
“There are going to be huge trends. Everyone is talking about how it creates a bit of a new world order in terms of society, how people might engage together, the social society of the future as it were, how we do business together, how you buy and sell things. And I just think it will be,” he says.
“Gaming will lead, as it has done with new tech before, but I think it’s all the things outside of games where it will evolve too.“
As someone who has been a part of the games industry for three decades, Kenwright has watched VR’s slow approach on the horizon for many years.
“I remember one particular quote when we started a few years ago, from someone far more clever than I, saying ‘in a few hundred years historians will look back to the 20th century and see it as a stopgap between reality and virtual reality’,” he explains.
“I’m not sure it’ll be quite as dramatic as that, but there’s certainly a huge element of it, you know. You can see it now. With an app for $5 or $10 and a few clicks of your phone you can have an experience you’d have paid half a million dollars for just a few years ago.”
But now, with VR developing at pace, Kenwright is facing the prospect of seeing decades-old ideas finally become reality.
“30 years ago, when I started getting into games, I asked myself: ‘one day, would we be able to create something that was so close to reality that you wouldn’t know?’ And my answer was: ‘maybe not in my lifetime’,” he muses. “But since VR, I’ve been thinking ‘you know what? I think it might be in my lifetime’.“
However, as experienced as the vTime team are, there is still a distinct element of entering the unknown when it comes to VR and the future.
“We are still very much making it up as we go along, everyone in VR is very much fighting for their lives,” he says.
“We don’t know if there is the market yet; there’s no big revenues yet. We’re still all figuring out how we’re going to make money, so it’s a very, very exciting but dangerous time as well.”