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VR's new magic ingredient: Friendship

Virtual reality luminaries Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin tell how a shared group experience powers their latest experience, Chorus.

Within

When we think about innovations in virtual reality, we often think about technological advances: sleeker headsets, more realistic images, gloves that touch what isn't there. But for VR luminary Chris Milk, the next step forward is something simpler: hanging out with your friends.

Milk is the co-founder, with Aaron Koblin, of VR and multimedia company Within (previously known as Vrse). Between them, they've created VR and multimedia projects involving the likes of Beck, St. Vincent, Muse, U2, "Saturday Night Live" and The New York Times. The company's latest project is a VR experience called Chorus, directed by Tyler Hurd, which hurls groups of players into a psychedelic sci-fi spectacular set to the music of French electro group Justice. 

I sat down with Milk and Koblin last month at the Sundance film festival, where Chorus premiered, to find out why they're so interested in bringing people together inside VR. Milk spoke of how people thrive on shared experiences, especially with those they're closest to.

"That shared human experience," he said, "is something we haven't witnessed with storytelling in most mediums thus far, but virtual reality is uniquely a medium of shared experiences that you're living firsthand."

After years of discussion, VR now is making its way into our homes with the debut of headsets like the Sony PlayStation VR and Facebook's Oculus Rift, which show you scenes that trick you into thinking you're immersed in a completely different environment. Meanwhile, a number of companies, like Milk and Koblin's Within, are creating VR experiences, which range from souped-up video games to realistic mini-movies to completely fantastic animated fripperies like Chorus.

There's clearly money in the market: VR theme parks and attractions are on the increase, for example, while filmmaker Darren Aronofsky's space-themed experience Spheres just landed a million-dollar distribution deal.    

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Within co-founders and VR luminaries Chris Milk and Aaron Koblin.

Within

For my Chorus experience, six people got shuffled into a darkened room, where each of us donned an HTC Vive headset and vibrating SubPac haptic backpack.

I was trying it out with a group of strangers, and we were a bit shy with each other as we stepped into the experience. I'm used to VR without much interaction, so at first I just watched the colorful, trippy action unfold and didn't try to interact much. You can't alter or interact with the story much -- you basically fly through space as giant iridescent creatures tower over you -- but you can use your controllers to send glittering energy beams lashing across the stars. I certainly felt a bit silly about dancing, as suggested by the staff who plugged me in.

But then I realized I could see the other players. Holding a controller in my hand, I waved -- and one of the superhero-like fantasy figures near me waved back. The other players could see me, too.

"Some people will go through it and not say anything at all, not even realize that those are all real people inside there with them," said Milk. "But if you get people that are really close, they all know each other, they'll be yelling and talking to each other."

Among the other VR experiences featured at Sundance was Masters Of The Sun, a marriage of hip-hop and Marvel comics style. It's produced by Will.i.am and his bandmates the Black Eyed Peas, who also at one point ventured into Chorus. "That's a perfect example," said Milk. "They were dancing and yelling at each other and laughing at the characters they each become inside of the experience." 

Once I realized I could see the other players -- or rather their anime-style avatars -- I felt myself relax and even started to dance a bit. Chorus is a deliberately stylized animation starring outlandish aliens and heroic characters, and I felt freer to move and dance knowing I appeared as a fantastical character rather than as myself.

It turns out that players feel an emotional connection to other players even if they look bizarre, which allows creators to shift their priorities away from hyperrealistic 360-degree video.

"Initially we were doing a lot of video VR content because we felt it was important to get a real photorealistic representation of a human," Milk said. "But when we put multiple people inside a virtual reality space, there is instantly such a human connection -- even if the other person didn't look like a person at all." 

Talking about group experiences is all very well, but it doesn't mean much if you're the only kid on the block with a VR setup. Koblin points out that the value of Facebook, for example, comes when all of your friends are also on the network. But with only 4 million of Sony's PlayStation VR sold and with the much-vaunted Oculus Rift shifting just 250,000 units in its first year, VR doesn't yet have much reach beyond deep-pocketed early adopters.

But Koblin insists that's about to change. "A huge technological innovation that's right on the horizon is all-in-one headsets," he said, referring to a next generation of VR helmets that don't have to connect to a PC or mobile device. "Sooner than people realize we'll have an all-in-one sitting on a charging base that you pick up and you're in a magical dreamscape with your best friend and you go on some crazy adventure together."

Milk agreed.

"The ability to just hop in, hop out will change the game," he said. "When you remove all friction points and you have a headset that's super light and easy and you throw it on and suddenly you're someplace else, that's like the most amazing Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory opens up three doors down from your house."

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