Virtual reality chat apps: making VR social

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As much as virtual reality might be a great setting for people looking to shoot at aliens holding guns that feel real, swing swords that feel real and perform menial tasks that feel just as real as the real world, virtual reality has a lot more potential as a social tool than just these limited experiences.

Facebook recognised this potential early. It's why it bought Oculus VR and it's why we've seen a lot of promotion for its Rooms and Parties system at Facebook and Oculus shows alike. They have digital avatars whose' mouths move with their owners, collaborative experiences like viewing photos and videos and even playing together within a shared space.

But Facebook is far from the only company who recognised this. Before the launch of consumer-grade VR headsets and certainly after it, we've seen a number of applications debut with various social functions within them and they're a lot of fun, as well as interesting experiences – because they're collaborative and multiplayer in every sense of the world.

So let's take a look at some of the ones we've tried out, to tell you a little about what you can expect when you don a VR headset and head into the communal world of social virtual reality.

VR Chat

The newest release on this list, VRChat is a mixture of community chat hub and social gaming experience. Built to work a little like the Gunter personalised rooms in Ready Player One, it comes pre-built with a few stock rooms to hang out in, with public and private spaces, but the real joy is in the community built rooms.

While VRChat might come with a laser-disc game, a capture the flag system and a wild-west shootout room, the community made rooms are far more impressive. There's an entire Sword Art Online world, a castle and surrounding villages, nightclubs, space stations and hundreds of other iterations.

In each you can explore with friends, sit around fires and chat, eat virtual food, drink virtual drinks, load up Youtube videos on cinema-size screens and much more.

One of the most interesting features with this social app though, is what's to come in the future. Looking to have a relatively hands-off approach, the developers are building a system where players can construct their own avatars, so can look like whatever they want. They are also making it so that any of the modules it's created for its meeting room, bowling alley, shooting galleries and more, can be loaded into community rooms.

That's some huge potential. Say you built a castle for your own private room for you and your friends to hang out with. Instead of going somewhere else to shoot some zombies, you can just spawn in a wave shooter module and have them attack the castle. Or load in sports equipment and play a few rounds of VR frisbee.

The potential is huge and we're excited to see what comes next.

Rec Room

Rec Room is a great little playground for those just finding their VR legs. It features a few communal spaces, as well as some rooms designed with specific games in mind. Fancy some teleporting paddle ball? How about some basketball? Competitive shooting? Group doodling?

All of these and more are present and easily available in Rec Room. It has a bright, but easy-on-the-eye style and there are a number of emotions presented by the various faces on offer, which tailor themselves to actions, sounds and setting, to make everyone's faces that bit more contextual.

Like some of these other apps on this list, it's still in early access for now, but has been received very well by the community and features a regular and active player base, which is more than can be said for many VR games and experiences.

AltspaceVR

The oldest VR social app on this list, Altspace was released back in the DK2 days of VR development and is still going strong today. While it has the same open, chat spaces of the others on this list, it has an emphasis on public events. As well as going in there and meeting new people, you can show up at specific times to watch comedians like Reggie Watts, or hear a talk from Justin Roiland about his shows and plans for VR content.

These events are growing and coming more frequently all the time. They even cater to different time zones around the world, so everyone can get involved.

Altspace doesn't have the number of games of the other apps on this list, but it does have some. It also has customisable avatars and a few unique spaces with a clean but simply art style that makes it an inclusive experience.

Big Screen

Big Screen was initially designed as a way to give game players a communal space to play two player, 2D games in. Instead of playing on your little 22 inch monitor, why not don your VR headset and play on a virtual 60 inch screen, with your virtual pal sat next to you?

It's grown since the initial inception though, and has become a virtual LAN party simulator. You can invite a number of friends or random people into one of a number of environments, load up games of your choice on the different screens and game away, all while interacting through head and hand gestures.

It's not as open as the other experiences on this list, but Big Screen offers the most traditional, communal gaming platform among them.

Conclusion

The above are just a handful of the VR chat apps available right now, but they're ones we've tried ourselves and can heartily recommend. There are some others out there though, including Vtime, which is compatible across almost every VR headset of every description; Amaze, which is aimed more at smartphone VR users and has a number of social networking features, and Oculus' own Rooms, which acts like Big Screen and other community gaming apps.

There is huge potential in virtual reality for solo and multiplayer games, experiences and chat. We're just getting started and there's a whole virtual universe to explore together.

Do any of you have a favorite VR chat app or experience?

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