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Wearable Tech

Oculus Venues brings VR crowds to real-life events, sort of

My first virtual sports experience with live people was a weird success.

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Oculus Venues ends up looking quite a bit like this.

Oculus

It's pretty clear what Facebook wants with Oculus: for you to use VR to socialize with your network when you're not physically with your network. Sound creepy? I hopped around a virtual arena and sat with other avatars during a VR broadcast of a basketball game last week for an hour, and I didn't hate it.

Oculus Venues is the next step for what Facebook hopes will convince more people to experience VR together. It launches Wednesday, after being announced at the Oculus Go debut. On the surface, it's a way to livestream VR concerts and sports and comedy shows, similar to apps NextVR and Within.

But it's also clearly a first take at a virtual community where you try new things and meet new people -- er, "people." But not a world where you walk around. Instead, imagine showing up at a big stadium event where you could simply zap around from seat to seat and chat with folks and then... zap away. Flitting between seats like a VR butterfly. That's the weird social-spectator world of Oculus Venues. And it kinda reminded me of what it was like to go to football games with my dad when I wasn't interested in watching the game, but the conversations with everyone around me.

In that particular sense, it captured what it's like for me to be at a live event perfectly. And it might be the best current example of how spectator sports in VR could work, even if it's clearly an imperfect mix.

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The Oculus Venues summer lineup.

Oculus

What'll be shown: Sports, concerts, comedy

Oculus' first event lineup folds in free and live experiences starting with a live Vance Joy concert from the Red Rocks Amphitheater (Wednesday, May 30, at 10:30 p.m. ET), and promising a steady flow of live comedy shows, sports events, movies and concerts. Comedy shows won't be interactive: Avatars can talk to each other, but performers won't see the avatars.

The just-announced lineup is a limited mix: some concerts (Vance Joy, Everclear and a venue called School Night! Live From Hollywood), some Lionsgate film screenings (Reservoir Dogs, Apocalypse Now!, National Lampoon's Van Wilder), some Gotham Comedy Live stand-up, International Champions Cup football, and a few MLB games. NextVR, Lionsgate, AEG Presents and MLB are early partners.

A movie theater for live events with virtual friends

In my demo, Oculus served a prerecorded Warriors-Grizzlies NBA game filmed by NextVR. The game felt projected in front of the stadium seats, more like it was a big-screen movie than a real event. It's like other 180-degree video-streaming apps I've used, but vivid, crisper than I expected for VR. The various camera angles broke the illusion of being at a real stadium, but it felt watchable and much closer than television.

I watched from the perspective of a series of seats in virtual risers, like an IMAX theater or box seats at an arena. In my particular prerelease session, a mix of press and Oculus reps filled the virtual theater via avatars. (When the venue fills up, new instances will be created for an infinite number of theaters. Oculus aims to put Facebook friends into the same space, or you'll be able to join up if you're split apart.)

Being in Venues was like I was sitting in a virtual movie theater, staring at bizarre floating avatar-masks, like Nintendo Mii avatars, broadcasting audio through little animated rings near their mouths. Disembodied hands floated too, just one per person, since Oculus Go and Samsung Gear VR headsets only have a basic one-hand remote. Someone tried to initiate The Wave, and we all just flapped our little animated hands.

Someone said "Hey, Scott!" somewhere behind me, softly. I turned and saw someone waving: an Oculus PR rep. As I turned, I saw markers for empty seats next to her. I lifted my remote, clicked and joined her.

I sat in a mini-box of four seats, one small cluster among many. Next to me were other avatars whose user names I could see, and as they spoke the audio floated in with spatial accuracy.

I found myself hopping around and having conversations with lots of people... at first shyly, then a little more confidently. A pop-up dashboard showed me who was in the room, and Facebook's software aims to pair newcomers with people who you might have something in common with: shared interests or common friends on Facebook. Yes, it is strange.

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Sometimes, you'll want to be alone.

Oculus

Little social clusters

Seats are arranged in four-person mini-clusters to keep conversations from getting too out of control and social situations manageable, with some degree of ambient audio still wafting in from other areas, much like in a real stadium. The effect is surprising. I started having a conversation, half-paying-attention to the game itself, just like I do at actual sports events. The app has tools to tune out distractions, too: I can adjust the event and chat audio separately, tuning either down to zero. And if I want to be on my own, entering "solo mode" puts me high at the top of the arena, in a simulated personal box seat. I can watch undisturbed, with hints of the avatars down below. It's oddly comforting.

The weird part of Venues (or one of several weird parts) is that there's no way for the audience to interact with what's being shown. That level of disconnect was acknowledged by an Oculus product manager I spoke to as we watched basketball together in VR. Eventually, maybe, a future VR town hall could let a celebrity see and answer questions in the crowd or a comedian could hear suggestions from the crowd.

And what would it be like for an actual live event that I cared about? Would I feel connected enough to the experience and my fellow VR-pals?

How to report the creeps

Odds are, someone's going to behave badly just like IRL. Facebook has installed some tools for instantly reporting anyone who misbehaves, even recording behavior to send to Facebook. You can mute and block avatars, too. Facebook also promises on-site moderators in Venues.

Will I ever want to spend time here for an event I care about?

There's a limit to how long anyone could even spend in Oculus Venues. One hour drained about 50 percent of the battery on my Oculus Go. My face showed strap marks. I desperately needed to rest my eyes once the event was over. But I didn't notice the time passing while watching the game, and the conversations helped suck me in. My first jaunt into Oculus Venues felt a lot more like a random trip to a stadium than I ever expected, and it might be the best way to meet people in a VR universe that's struggling.

Venues is a sign that social VR is just getting its feet wet. We're not there yet.