Oculus Go for Old People, Part III

Tom Nickel
8 min readJul 27, 2018
Portrait of the Author as an Old Person in the Oculus Go, (cont’d)

This article is not written to address the needs of people who are supremely self-confident in any social situation. They will do fine in VR without my help. I am writing it for the people who are wondering if now is the time to get into VR and who don’t have super powers when it comes to socializing.

The reason socializing matters is that VR has a secret source of Content, secret in that no one talks about it much or pushes it in marketing and advertising. The secret source is Other People — and they’re free!

Major Content providers we all know and love/hate are assuming we will strap on our headsets, slip in the virtual credit card, and spend all our time (and money) immersed in cool stuff. They’re probably right. People can be a lot of fun but they require much more effort than just sitting back and watching.

As I described in ‘Oculus Go for Old People Part II,’ there is an entire dimension of VR that is explicitly social. There are scheduled events designed to generate interaction. There are open-entry spaces where anyone can drop in at any time and find other people to talk with.

One of the leaders in Social VR is AltspaceVR, where I have found it consistently easy to interact. The News show, Shane’s Multiverse forum, Open Mic night and most of all, the Meditation group my son leads — each one provides a format that helps everyone know what to do and how to do it.

But sometimes it’s not so easy. Some people think VR will separate us into our own separate individual-experience units. The main thing I’m trying to do there is connect with other people.

VTime

There are places I have gone in VR where I did not feel confident and did not find it easy to connect with other people. One of them is a social space called VTime.

The home base where you first enter felt creepy and uninviting to me right from the get-go. Music that made me a little anxious was on autoplay.

My first instinct was to leave because it was difficult and unpleasant and plenty of other stuff wasn’t. Like many other humans, I love challenge but can be easily seduced by the comfortable and familiar.

I kept going back to AltspaceVR but I kept hearing on Reddit and Facebook that VTime is good too. Some people preferred it; it was becoming a Coke-Pepsi thing.

So I tried again, from a sense of obligation, not eager anticipation. I lasted longer, but I was put off by the start-up procedure, mostly designing my avatar.

Some people enjoy micro-designing their avatar. Avatars matter. I get it. However, the stylistic details interest me exactly as much, maybe even less, than they do in so-called real life, which is not at all.

In Altspace VR, you can get the avatar construction job done quick and easy. In VTime, I couldn’t. It felt like every little aspect had to be addressed and I didn’t want to, especially not with the weird music still auto-playing.

I got fed up and left again.

I wrote on my things-to-list: Go back to VTime, every day for a week. I finally forced myself to clear a chunk of time, steeled myself like I was going to the dentist or something, and went back a bunch of pixels called VTime.

The avatar project was almost done, right where I had left it. I finished the stupid thing and then tried to figure out what to do.

I knew how to work the menu, so what the heck, I chose ‘Connections.’ Little circles with people’s faces started appearing. Some had lines drawn between them. I didn’t get it at all.

I saw another icon and it led me to more views of people in places, like boardrooms or beach parties or television studios. I could ask to join any one of them and so I did. My request was denied. Reminded me of the time I was 11, worked up all my nerve, and asked the girl I really liked at Mrs. Botsford’s School of Dance to be my partner.

I can handle it. I tried again. Request Denied. Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Tried again. And then I was in a new place, a TV talk show set. I was in a guest chair looking at the host and the guy next to me was saying, “Hi, Tom,” and then, “where are you from?”

I ended up staying there almost an hour. The host was a young man from Beijing who spoke English with an accent. As the host, he had the ability to show pics from his stored images on a large screen — and the God-like power to zap someone out of the room if they were not behaving the way he wanted.

It was his second day in VR. He had opened the room and then sat there waiting until his first guest joined. A guy from Utah. They’d been hanging out for a while when I became guest number three.

Things went very well. We talked about VR and what we’d been doing, but we also talked about so-called real life. I asked the guy from Beijing what people there were saying about the US-China mega-Trade War. He said, “nothing, people are just living their lives.”

He talked about how people his age, in their early twenties, want to learn English and make connections with Americans — but the younger generation, as he called them, the sixteen year olds, were all about China #1!. America is bad; only China is good. I asked him if he thought they would grow out of it. He said he wasn’t sure.

It was good conversation. It might not have been “My Dinner with Andre,” but we were strangers.

And we were not the same age — I know because the Utah guy asked. He is in his thirties. I told the truth, although I didn’t have to. I knew it would blow their minds that I’m an old guy and it did. I didn’t feel anything changing once they were aware I am 69, almost 70. But if they had known it in the first place, I’m not sure things would have flowed so easily between us from the start.

I should also say that I don’t sound like 70. I look it, with my white hair and beard, but I talk fast with a lot of energy so I don’t necessarily sound it. That turns out to matter in Social VR. The Utah guy told me I have an announcer’s voice. I’ve been told that before. Voice has even more power in Social VR because it’s really you and everyone knows it. At the moment.

At some point a young woman from Massachusetts joined the three of us. She said she worked at home and didn’t have a car so VTime was becoming her way to talk with people. She’s been coming every day for the month she has has her Oculus Go.

Obviously it’s been working for her or she wouldn’t keep coming back. She said she had one negative experience but it was easy to get away from. In fact, she kind of enjoyed describing how she did it.

After we’d been talking nicely for a while, she told me my avatar was kind of off. Actually, I’m not clear exactly what she meant, but something about my avatar isn’t working at a level that must be distracting or maybe sending a message I don’t want to send. I spend more time on it (yawn).

My avatar sucking was just another thread in the conversation. The guy from Beijing was notably non-directive, although he did zap one person who appeared, spouted some shit and got shit-canned. Eventually, just like I normally would, I sensed the right moment in the free-range conversation we were having to thank everyone and say goodbye. It was cool how they were saying goodbye to me as I faded away.

Some Take-Aways

VTime can work. There is always the potential of an interesting conversation with strangers and the cost of not-finding one is low. It will take more time to learn how to find interesting conversations with strangers reliably.

People feel more free to say what needs to be said — that’s how I relate to the comments about my avatar. I’m guessing that she would not have said that to me if we had been two strangers sitting next to each other at the bar in an Applebees.

Visual cues that might affect interaction by indicating age, ethnicity, gender and more are suppressed, but audio cues matter. Your voice, which may be misleading, is how others will make inferences about who you are.

VTime offers a nice set of spaces, but I can’t play all the media types I want to in them. Maybe I should see what I can do with what they do support instead of going right for my main goal, which is playing my 360 videos in a social space.

The TV Talk Show set was a factor in how the experience felt to me. I know that format, we all do, and I know how to do it. There are variations to try — start with a friend and let any strangers join; have all friends, or all strangers, and play it like a real talk show. How about having people from the same company or town or school — people with one thread in common — and get to know each other in a long-form talk show way?

It was difficult to get myself to do this. I wasn’t hesitant about talking with strangers. I knew I could talk once something was rolling. It was approaching strangers I avoided. Because I could be virtually rejected? Well, I was. It didn’t kill me. Then it happened again. Then I had a really good time.

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Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos