The experiment offers a glimpse into what socialization might look like in our increasingly technology-mediated future
The New York Times
On a recent Saturday night, the street outside Tube VR nightclub looked typical of East London: a boat moored on the canal, trendy retail spaces lining the waterfront, a graffiti-covered tunnel. Inside, however, I found myself dancing next to a hat-wearing hedgehog, an animated nun with an acid green halo and a humanoid fox in hot pants.
Tube VR is a venue and one of the most popular events on VRChat, a video game-like social platform that takes place in virtual reality, or VR, where users can assume fictional avatars of their own design. When I removed my VR headset, I was alone in my bedroom. I put it on again, and I was once again thrown into the heartbeat of the party.
During the height of the coronavirus pandemic, regular party-goers flocked to virtual clubs hosted on platforms like Zoom, but since the reopening of physical venues, these digital spaces have waned in popularity. Not so with VRChat. When a large part of the world was locked down, the daily user numbers of the platform increased steadily. That trend has mostly stuck, with numbers continuing to exceed pre-pandemic levels, according to data cited by the platform.
To attend a virtual club in VRChat, you only need a standard PC, but getting the most immersive experience requires a VR headset and a fairly powerful PC. Tube nightclub is just one of hundreds of thousands of separate VRChat worlds where people congregate and socialize in avatar form.
I felt out of place at my first VR concert. There was a new social etiquette for learning how to approach and talk to other clubs, and my virtual avatar felt basic compared to the fantasy creatures around me. But with my headphones translating my voice and movements into virtual space and the avatar dancing and chatting around me, it felt surprisingly close to being in a real club.
This experiment offers a glimpse into what socialization might look like in our increasingly technology-mediated future. “Just as video conferencing via Zoom has become an essential part of ordinary life for many people, now that it is so convenient and useful, it is easy to imagine that in 10 years, virtual reality could play this role” in everyday social communication as well, said David Chalmers. , a professor of philosophy and neurosciences at New York University who has written a book about virtual reality, via email.
Of course, some aspects of VRChat can’t compete with real life, and VR events suffer a lot from delays and glitches. But partying in VR also offers distinct advantages: personal safety and harassment are not a concern; Users have more control over their environment, and can adjust the volume of people’s voices or music to their liking; Regardless of the cost of the hardware offered, the events are free.
This increased accessibility is especially useful for people who live away from hot spots, and for users with limited mobility. Turels, a VRChat user, was a professional musician until he was diagnosed with adult Still’s disease, a form of arthritis that means he can no longer use his hands to play instruments. “When I got the diagnosis, I thought I was done — time to pack up and sell my music gear,” Torrells, who asked that his real name not be published for privacy reasons related to his illness, said in a recent phone interview.
But friends he made at the virtual club encouraged him to try DJing in virtual reality with specially modified hardware. He now performs music in VRChat regularly. “VRChat has given me back that part of my life,” he said.
On any given weekend, there are dozens of VRChat parties. There is a lump, a delirium inside a giant robot’s head; Shelter, a folk club that develops according to a conceptual science fiction narrative; and Ghost Club, a leading Japanese venue that users enter via a phone booth. All the “VRchitects” who create a club make the most of their freedom from the constraints of budget and physical space.
One of the distinct features of VRChat is that almost all of its content is generated by its users. There are a few opportunities to monetize their creations within the game, and while some places run Patreon pages to cover costs, the vast majority are created and run by volunteers – some, like Tube, also raise money for charity.
VRChat itself is free to use and heavily funded by investors, receiving $80 million in its latest funding round in 2021. This monetization warning has only bolstered a seemingly real grassroots club scene. However, there are plans to introduce a creative economy in the near future.
Crows are just one of the main communities in VRChat. There are also LGBTQ groups and worlds dedicated to role-playing, dance, Buddhist meditation, and more. The deaf community teaches virtual reality sign language in a virtual school.
The avatars users choose are often cartoonish, but the relationships they build in VRChat are undeniably human. “I met so many new people that I called my closest friends these days, whom I also met in real life,” My S. Lash, who runs the LGBTQ Concrete Club on VRChat, said in a video interview. “Ultimately, virtual reality is about people, not technology. Technology brings people from far away places closer.”
Perhaps the biggest barrier to VRChat becoming a mainstream clubbing space is the limitations of virtual reality hardware. The best headphones are still very expensive, and many find them bulky and report experiencing headaches or nausea. But with the Meta and Sony still investing heavily in virtual reality, and with Apple working on a headset, the technology should continue to improve and become more accessible.
Since VR technology is relatively new, there hasn’t been a lot of research on the long-term impact of spending large amounts of time in VR.
“I’ve spent a lot of time on VRChat, close to 4,000 hours,” Lash said, “I have dreams in VR. Sometimes I spend 12 hours in VR and then when I get out of it I still see the little microphone mute icon in my vision” .
Another obstacle is the fear that virtual reality is a substitute for actual reality. But many of its users have said that VRChat complements rather than replaces real life.
This is certainly true of Lincoln Donnellan, who runs parties called Loner virtually and in his hometown, Melbourne, Australia. She finds him one evening in the dirty bathroom of the virtual club talking with a giant fox, two girls on skateboarding and a guy in a dinner jacket smoking a cigarette.
Donelan’s avatar—an animated girl with dark hair, mint green eyes, and tattoos dotted across bone-white skin—has explained his schedule for the upcoming weekend: DJ at a reality club on Friday night, and run a VR party on Saturday afternoons before going out to dinner and a party. Another in Melbourne, then getting up on Sunday to go back into VR.
“Virtual reality will never ever replace real-life clubbing. I think it’s the perfect complement to it, though,” he said. “In the end, VR is just another thing you can choose from.”
– This article originally appeared in The New York Times