“Standing inside this massive VR world and looking out at the horizon, there's something distinctly otherworldly about knowing that ‘out there’ really does exist,” said Herman Narula, Founder and CEO of Improbable in a statement.
“There are no loading tricks or fake backdrops. If you can see it, you can travel to it - step by step if you want to. And if you make a change to any part of the world, that change persists and can be experienced by everyone else who visits. Your actions have lasting consequences; they matter. That’s a key part of making a virtual world feel real.”
Improbable is the London-based company behind the distributed operating system – SpatialOS – which powers MetaWorld from HelloVR. Once fully released MetaWorld will provide a single world of around 10,000 square miles – the size of 250 Disney Worlds – in which VR players can meet, experience a glorious creature-filled landscape and build their own things.
Currently in closed beta – Venturebeat went inside recently – MetaWorld will be available for multiple VR products, including the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift and PlayStationVR. While “pioneers” will have a chance to join the space from 1st December for a cost of $29.99 or $39.99.
“Our goal is to give VR users something to come back to again and again by unleashing rich and divergent world interactions driven by believable human to human and human to machine encounters,” explains HelloVR’s founder and CEO Dedric Reid when I catch-up with him.
Of course, MetaWorld is by no means the only social VR project out there. Linden Lab, behind Second Life, is working on a virtual world called Project Sansar – this will provide complex locations and probably offer a home for brands. While AltspaceVR is working towards a space for entertainment like virtual concerts and comedy nights.
MetaWorld, by contrast, is far more stripped back and simple. It will be made up of three types of spaces says Reid. Studio generated space – crafted and maintained by HelloVR and its partners. Naturally generated open space using deep learning techniques “think wilderness” – scheduled for 2017 and “mostly open space for everyone to explore”. And community generated space maintained by the members.
“Thousands can join the world simultaneously across 10,000 square miles,” clarifies Reid. “But we are limiting Studio generated environments to 30 members so that we maintain intimate experiences and quality performance.”
Initial visitors to the space will be able to participate in outdoor physics simulations such as camping, fishing, farming, archery, hot air balloon flights, road trips and meditation retreats. It will also “feature cognitive wildlife with cognitive behaviours controlled by IBM Watson”.
Watson is assisting MetaWorld across a number of areas says Reid. These are general usability – “helping us with personality matching by analysing member behaviour and creating member types”; the design of the environment; creating aspects of creature behaviour – “an early work in progress”; and modelling avatar expression.
“First generation head-mounted displays cover our faces in VR,” explains Reid. “We’ve been exploring algorithms using speech synthesis to generate facial expressions. Member actions in-world are also represented in the form of avatar expression. Watson is helping us to better understand player behaviour in an effort to accurately model avatar facial expressions.”
Users will be able to encounter other members in the world through physical discovery or be able to find people using a ‘handheld’ user interface/device which lists who is in-world and where they are, he adds. “Members can choose to be discoverable or undiscoverable at anytime.”
It sounds like a very interesting concept but I can’t help wondering about the issue of safety. As everything is permanent how is it possible to police a site like this and stop it becoming a vile dystopia overrun by bandits? “When MetaWorld is at its best, it’s real,” says Reid. “You are actually there and you are there with real people. Harassment and misconduct will not be tolerated. If it feels fake then people will treat it like any other video game which means we’ve failed twice.
“We are building the Alpha phase from a peaceful place during these early stages. In the near future we will incorporate broader world interaction styles to accommodate unpredictable curiosities and cater to a wide range of personalities in the community. We understand that not everyone has a ‘chill by the fireside’ personality. Our goal is to match community personalities and ensure comfort for everyone in world.”
This whole idea of social VR is a very big one because it provides a truly immersive meeting space where people can interact outside of the real world. It really is the stuff of science fiction. Yet Reid places this firmly within the context of other digital communication tools.
“When we strip away the MetaWorld concept and context you have an always-on, massive-scale, truly persistent social VR communication and collaboration system with positional VoIP, avatar system, multi-modal locomotion system, real-time distributed physics framework, persistent object management and more,” he says.
“We have future plans for a separate vast-scale collaboration product following the launch of MetaWorld. The new app is devoid of the conceptual structure of MetaWorld. It’s a more malleable vast-scale collaboration tool,” he concludes.
Phil Muncaster reports on China and beyond