Someone’s left the chessboard in quite a mess. I pick up a knight and wonder which square it belongs on. “If only you had wanted to play draughts,” I say. Dedric Reid laughs as he helps me reset the board. We’re having fun – but. We are in MetaWorld.
Back in reality, I’m viewing the chessboard and pieces – and Reid’s bobbing cartoon head – through an HTC Vive headset. A controller in each hand lets me move my virtual hands around to gesture and to interact with objects. “People are attracted to physical experiences,” says Reid as we play chess. “This is a very natural activity.”
Reid, CEO of simulation company HelloVR in London, has invited me to join him in what’s billed as the first persistent VR world where people can simply hang out. There are other, such as – but they only exist while you’re in them. Exit MetaWorld and it stays just as you left it.
Just hanging out
My chess skills aren’t getting any better so we move to a digital campfire for a chat. Around us, birds twitter in a rather bland virtual wilderness.
Reid says the whole environment has been designed to foster “social presence” – the feeling that people are naturally sharing the space and interacting, despite being represented by just a cartoonish head and hands, with no body. But it works quite well – you can gesture as you talk and it feels personal.
“We find that most people just hang out by the fire and talk,” says Reid. “There’s something quite magical when you feel that the individual on the other side is a person.”
HelloVR plans to add activities to keep most outdoors types happy, including camping, fishing, farming, archery, hot air balloon flights, road trips, treasure hunts and meditation retreats.
MetaWorld is powered by a system called SpatialOS, developed by London start-up Improbable. It involves fleets of “worker” programs that spread tasks across many servers, allowing large-scale simulations of physical settings to run efficiently.
You are not tied to a specific path, so you can create your own fun. “If you want to pick the chess pieces up and throw them in someone’s face, you can,” says Improbable co-founder Herman Narula.
Being a simulation that runs regardless of whether people are there makes MetaWorld one of the closest things we have to a real-life version of The Matrix. And it works in a different way to many of the large multiplayer video games. Minecraft and No Man’s Sky generate large portions of their worlds on the fly, says Narula.
There have to be compelling reasons for someone to want to spend time in a virtual world, says Richard Bartle at the University of Essex in Colchester, UK, who studies game design. But, he says, people will always want spaces in which to meet. “I see it as being like the World Wide Web – but a World Wide Web of worlds.”
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