PlayStation VR needs to go social at this year’s E3
If there's one thing that could save Sony's VR headset, it's the power of human interaction.
For all the hype surrounding virtual reality lately, the technology hasn't exactly set the world on fire. Between the high price tag, the lack of must-play experiences and the amount of free space needed to set it up, VR remains a niche luxury struggling to justify itself to the average gamer.
Of all the players in the VR game, PlayStation VR has had it especially rough. Despite being the cheapest and most accessible of the three main virtual reality headsets, its software library lacks the diversity of the competing HTC Vive and Oculus Rift devices.
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We here at finder.com.au have certainly enjoyed our time with titles like Batman: Arkham VR and RIGS: Mechanised Combat League, but at the same time we can't help feeling there's one area where Sony's device really needs to step up its game: social VR.
What is social VR?
For those who haven't heard the term before, social VR refers to a type of experience built to facilitate communication and interaction between VR users, typically over the Internet. Less games and more communal spaces, social VR titles channel the joy of hanging out with other people by dropping users into virtual nightclubs, movie theatres and community centres and giving them all sorts of toys and gadgets to mess around with.
To bring users together, there are often numerous mini-games to participate in, from bowling to pool to 3D charades. Instead of the complexity of something like RIGS or Battlezone, these simple activities serve primarily as catalysts for socialising, encouraging strangers to form friendships through light-hearted, low-stakes competition.
What makes social VR different?
The key element here is that social VR experiences rely on users interacting with each other to make their own fun. Playing a game of VR ping pong against the predictable CPU might not be that compelling, but when a human opponent decides to throw away their paddle and use a pool cue instead, the match turns into a chaotic competition to see who can find the most absurd prop to hit a ping pong ball with.
VR darts might not sound as thrilling as a round of Call of Duty, but once you realise you can hurl the darts at your fellow VR inhabitants, the virtual bar you're in becomes an impromptu battlefield. Between shattering wine bottles, ducking for cover behind pool tables and using beer coasters as makeshift shuriken, social VR offers a style of free-form fun impossible in any other medium.
How can PlayStation VR take advantage of social VR?
As it stands, there are very few PlayStation VR games that qualify as social VR experiences. The only real contender is SportsBar VR, but while its virtual pub environment nails the idea of a relaxing social space, the game itself is held back by a limit of six players per bar at any one time. For a social VR title to truly harness the liveliness of a shared space, it needs more than a mere half-dozen people inhabiting it.
SportsBar VR aside, Sony's headset is predominantly focused on solitary, one-and-done experiences that fail to recognise the potential of socialising in virtual reality. In contrast, the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift have embraced social VR with titles like Rec Room and AltspaceVR, both of which have drawn in hundreds of thousands of users each. While the fact they're both free undoubtedly has a lot to do with their popularity, that's still an impressive sum given virtual reality's relatively small user base.
That number could be magnitudes larger, though, if either title came to PlayStation VR. In February this year, Sony confirmed it had already sold nearly a million headsets – offering those million users a free social space to hang out in would do wonders for PlayStation VR's reputation.
Could social VR really help PlayStation VR succeed?
Social VR might not be a magic solution for all of PlayStation VR's woes, but it would certainly help to inject new life into the stagnant platform. This year's E3 would be the ideal place to do just that. A central hub for PlayStation VR users to chill out, chat and explore the limits of virtual interaction would provide a compelling reason to keep the headset hooked up, instead of leaving it to gather dust between the few noteworthy releases slowly trickling out. That's the benefit of a genre built on human interaction: it's inherently unpredictable, ensuring you'll have a whole new experience every time you log in.
On a larger scale, social VR could help PlayStation VR by fostering a sense of community amongst its users, much in the way any social club does. And like other social clubs, that close-knit atmosphere would serve as a powerful selling point for bringing new users into the fold. This could be crucial in expanding PlayStation VR's user base beyond core gamers to the more casual user, one interested in simply hanging out in virtual reality. Capturing that casual audience is the only way VR is going to succeed in the long term. If Sony doesn't realise that soon, PlayStation VR is going to find itself joining the Kinect on the lonely island of failed tech.
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