VR Salon II

I’m trying to learn how to talk with other people in Virtual Reality.

Tom Nickel
10 min readAug 20, 2018

I’m trying to learn this because when I first tried talking with other people in VR, I was very anxious and it wasn’t easy. But I kept trying and sometimes I managed to have a good time talking with virtual complete strangers.

I started figuring out by trial and error what sorts of places and events in VR even had a chance of working for me. And when it works, it really works. Conversations about anything can slip easily into something like a flow state.

At the same time, reasonable public discourse is closing down. What’s left are shouting matches, bland safe content, or tribal channels where one side’s views are constantly affirmed.

I know that we are capable of freely exchanging ideas with others — talking, listening, agreeing, disagreeing — as way to test our own thoughts and find out about new ways of thinking. Historically, the Salon is an event where this kind of free exchange is expected. If you come, you know what you’re in for.

A VR Salon could bring together people who are separated by distance and could not ordinarily meet for conversation. What would make a VR Salon work as well as some of the encounters I have had in Social VR space? How would I get people to come, people who wouldn’t necessarily agree about everything?

I’m testing. I wrote about my first VR Salon Pre-Test here. I just conducted my second one.

VR Salon Pre-Test2

I had a design pretty well planned out and ready to use, with some slides uploaded to the vTime Library to help make things clear. I never used it.

The plan was something I could fall back on if needed. I wanted a nice smooth engaging conversation to happen, that’s all. It did.

The idea was to notice what helped make things work, and to ask the other participants about it later.

Setting: vTime, Studio V Destination

Studio V is the most structured of any vTime Destination. It is a Talk Show set, completely indoors, with an audience watching, (not really). You know how to behave because you have watched Talk Show for years. There is inequality built into the format — a clear Host (the all-powerful Me).

I like it. I have been a Guest and a Host. I like both. I feel like the clarity leaves plenty of room to have fun and be creative within the rules. To me, it is a liberating format, no matter which role I play.

I learned in the test today in no uncertain terms that not everyone does. In fact, no one else loved it. Yet — we had a great conversation.

At first there were two of them, plus me as the Host. The fourth person I invited was setting up his avatar and having issues. It happens.

We got talking, the three of us, about striking up conversations with strangers in social settings, about discussing tricky issues outside a close group of friends.

Marion brought up a show he saw recently, Nanette. He wanted to be able to talk about it, see how other people reacted, all part of forming his own opinion. But it’s not easy. The show gets into areas that could be unsafe for public discourse. A work place might not be the best place to raise the questions Nanette raises becauses if things go south, what’re you going to do? You’ve still got to work with the person.

We should be able to disagree over aspects of Nanette and still work together, still be friends, still be on the same bowling team.

Hannah Gadsby’s really funny and really moving Netflix Special has had a piece of the zeitgeist for way more than 15 seconds. There are Nanette forums in Reddit — discussing important and controversial topics is precisely how Reddit became Reddit. There are not many other anything-goes channels for discussing Nanette, 911, and Melanie Trump’s wardrobe. reasonably for the most part.

I think we can do all that and better in Virtual Reality.

Pre-Test2 Destinations

‘Destination’ is vTime’s term for the twenty different pre-fab environments provided for up to four people/avatars at a time. Your avatar cannot do anything, can’t pick up objects, can’t move. That sure sounds restrictive and it is, but on the other hand, all that restriction allows you to focus on what vTime is meant for — talking.

The environments are not interactive. They are minimalist and not meant to be explored, with the exception of the Space Station, which is still minimalist but impossible not to explore. Their purpose is to set a tone, and in some cases, to provide cues for how to behave.

VR Salon Pre-Test2 turned out to be about those different tones. My working hypothesis was that a highly structured format would be the best place to start. I thought that well-known roles and clear authority would help at the beginning. That seemed to be true because the Talk Show set got us talking together smoothly and naturally..

After 20 minutes or more of good, engaged conversation, I moved all three of us to The Retreat, a simple VR version of a Japanese Blossom Garden, inherently more egalitarian in that there is no Host.

The Retreat

The others loved it, felt more relaxed in it. They didn’t even have to think about it when I asked. The ‘audience’ in Studio V was a real presence for at least one of my three guests; he felt them watching him. There was nothing like that in The Retreat, which also made it different/better, along with ‘being outdoors.’

I had planned on just one change of venues, but moving our small group to a new place with a new vibe was irresistible once we started. We moved from the Japanese Garden to a modern executive boardroom with glass walls many floors above the street. It was jarring and not pleasant. We left soon.

Rematerialized next in a Space Station!


The spectacle 20,000 miles below instantly grabbed our total attention and held it. I think it was Southeast Asia, Vietnam curving out into the water way down there. We couldn’t have had a conversation more profound than OMG at that moment. Maybe we should think about the Space Station as a place to go for a break in the conversation. To get our mind’s expanded.

Then we sat in the middle of Wilderness River in a circle of big rocks!

Picture Worlds

The Destinations are fake but it doesn’t matter. They’re as real as they need to be to serve their purpose.

I also used a series of photorealistic 360 degree images, which vTime displays with our avatars floating at the center of a gigantic spherical projection. The landscapes I had from Cambodia were breathtaking — salt harvesting areas, pepper growing, hillside agriculture, rice fields — with us in the middle.

Everyone’s favorite place was originally recorded with a 360 degree camera I placed on the outside balcony wall of a home north of Phnom Penh, which put our group of avatars over a lazy little river winding its way through woods and fields toward the Mekong.

No one wanted to leave. As a flat picture, I wouldn’t describe it as powerful. But being inside it with three other people felt so good, it was, like, ‘this is The Place for us to be right now.’ We all felt that way.

I think various kinds of 360 degree image scenes will be the most effective immersive backgrounds for conversation. An interesting video might be too compelling, but what would ordinarily be a boring video might be just perfect. A video from that same back porch with no people, no action — just the gently flowing river and some leaves moving in the wind — would be alive in a way that a still image isn’t, but still quiet enough to be background, non-intrusive.

Brief Tech Remarks

1) Showing 360 degree pictures from your own headset or computer is still a big deal. It is not the priority for commercial entities who would rather have you watch their premium stuff than your own free content.

It is wonderful to have the capability at all in vTime, which does not offer it in all Destinations — only in Studio V, the Boardroom, and another named The Archive, which is kind of a dingy basement setting. Authoritarian Host or Biz Vibe notwithstanding, we will have to use one of those vTime Destinations to access my own 360 degree pics.

2) Showing your own stored 360 videos in a shared, Social VR space is not currently feasible for Oculus Go users. AltspaceVR offers what is in my opinion a limited and unsatisfactory approach, at the moment, utilizing Youtube and a user-generated playlist. I believe this situation will change soon, probably through one of the premium VR media players, like Sky Box, Pigasus, or Pluto TV


We returned to the Japanese Gardens for closing thoughts. One idea we discussed was the idea of peer evaluation. Marion knew about a game in which a toxic environment was cured by the addition of a simple post-game player endorsement system. People’s behavior improved immediately.

For conversations, which are non-zero-sum games, it might be more helpful to characterize fellow participants rather than evaluate them. Someone who leads conversations without dominating them. Someone who listens carefully and makes infrequent but valuable contributions. Someone who is funny. Someone who is analytical.

What is the chemical formula for a great conversation? People who have run successful Salons at various times and places must have had an intuitive feel for proper mixtures.

We also felt very clearly how the setting can affect the mood by the way we shifted between extremes. It is generally not feasible to go from outer space to a babbling brook in seconds. We did.

And you know what, I asked directly one more time, hoping for the answer I wanted— and they still didn’t like the Studio V Talk Show set very much. I am forced to confront another possibility — that I like controlling conversations and that being in the first-among-equals seat gives me pleasure.

That is at least partly true about me. So once I get this VR Salon thing down, maybe I’ll move on to a VR Talk Show. Email me if you’d like to be a guest.

Our time together doing VR Salon Pre-Test2 came to an end; I was immersed for over an hour and a half. It was very satisfying. When I took off my Oculus Go, I did not feel particularly disoriented. I felt great. I’d just been hanging out with friends who aren’t anywhere near me, talking about stuff that matters.

VR Salon Pre-Test3

I knew before Pre-Test2 what I wanted to do for Pre-Test3. Now I am even more convinced it’s the next thing to try. A group of four, like we just had, starts in the vTime Japanese Garden and does introductions and starts discussing a topic. The group moves next to the Boardroom (as a way to play a series of 360 degree images that stay for a long time and change slowly) and a 360 image environment to continue talking..

Another group of four, with a friend Hosting, does more or less the same thing.

After half an hour, both groups take a 10 minute break at the Space Station — before moving to AltspaceVR. The eight new avatars (Altspace avatars are not the same as vTime avatars) meet in a pre-scheduled Event space and continue the discussion.

After another 30 minutes, we wind down and reflect a little.

VR Salon, Post Pre-Test

I will not call it Beta forever, even though it will be. I want to conduct an Event by mid-September that I call VR Salon 1, not a Pre-Test.

It will be invitation-only at first, maybe forever. I don’t know.

As my Pre-Test designs show, I think the way to mix and discuss things in a large group setting might be to start by talking with a small group of 2–3 people. A warm-up. Also creating a safety net of people you now know. The trick is to keep expanding the net, one first-conversation at a time. Once that opener is done, usually, it’s smooth sailing with that person.

I want my audience to include Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR users, as well as Vive and Rift, which means vTime and AltspaceVR are the options at this moment. Of the two, I believe first-conversations are most likely to go well in a mellow vTime Destination like The Retreat.

The four-person upper limit for vTime is its strength and its weakness. To move up to eight participants, we have to use AltspaceVR. My goal is 32 participants in a VR Salon.

Read all my VR articles here



Tom Nickel

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