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3 Years of AltspaceVR: Comedy, Politics and Social Exuberance

It’s the end of an era for one of the first social VR portals.

When consumer virtual reality (VR) first reappeared all those years ago people began imaging what possibilities immersive virtual worlds could offer consumers around the globe, donning a head-mounted display (HMD) and diving into fantasy, sci-fi or realistic environments that just weren’t possible on a 2D screen. While some saw it as a new frontier – one that been tried before a couple of decades previously – others saw it as another technological wall between people, a way to shut themselves away from the world making everybody a social pariah. Those that did see the possibilities also envisaged the opposite, offering new ways to bring people together, just this time in a virtual space. While there’s a growing contingent of social portals in VR – apps like Facebook Spaces and vTime or videogames such as Rec Room – one of the earliest was AltspaceVR. Unfortunately for the company that ride has now come to an end, so VRFocus has decided to look at some of the app’s most momentous events from the last three years.

Founded in 2013, AltspaceVR was co-founded by Eric Romo (CEO) and Gavan Wilhite (Director of Engineering), as a way of not only bringing people together in a virtual environment, but also to create meaningful social experience, whether that was through playing games, attending a live concert or comedy show, or even fostering political debate.

Having gained investments of $15.7 million – $10.3 million of which came in 2015 – AltspaceVR launched it’s app a few months after the arrival of Samsung Gear VR in November 2015, allowing early adopters to share videos from YouTube, Twitch and Periscope, chat and play videogames.

This was only the beginning of what AltspaceVR had planned, knowing that to entice users to the platform it had to offer something more than just a virtual space. So in the May of 2016 the app introduced popular musician and comedian Reggie Watts to the platform, so that users could enjoy a live comedy set. This proved to be a success as Watts became one of the most consistent big name performers with five VR shows in total.

One of the biggest features the company released after launch was FrontRow, a technology that mirrored performers’ avatars to all the audience locations. Their gestures, movements and voice are instantly shared in all the performance spaces. And who debuted it? None other than Mr. Watt’s himself in his first VR show.

Head to the AltspaceVR website and you’d see regular listings for a range of events across different channels, whether that was news, gaming, music, sport, science and more. Naturally being a social portal, 2016’s US presidential election had to feature at some point, so NBC News and AltspaceVR turned Rockefeller Plaza into “Democracy Plaza” creating programming such as debate watch parties, live Q&A discussions with political experts and political comedy events.

Being a California-based company all the events were catering towards a US audience – so while it was early evening in the US, UK viewers had to stay up until 3 or 4am to watch them – and AltspaceVR knew it had a global audience to appeal to. So in December 2016 the ‘Best of British Comedy’ event was held, featuring comedians Ian Stone and Ben Morris.

To be truly social AltspaceVR couldn’t be just on one platform – even though Gear VR’s user base is the biggest – so over the course of 2016/2017, support was added for Google Daydream, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, plus a 2D mode for Mac and PC users.

Unfortunately, the VR industry can be a harsh environment for any business to succeed and last week it made the surprise announcement that it would be closing its doors. Even with millions of investment and around 35,000 people using the app every month, AltspaceVR wasn’t making enough money to sustain itself explaining in a statement: “The company has run into unforeseen financial difficulty and we can’t afford to keep the virtual lights on anymore. This is surprising, disappointing, and frustrating for every one of us who have put our passion and our hopes into AltspaceVR.”

A day after the announcement, former face of VR and co-founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, tweeted about saving the company.

Whilst this was met with positive reply’s – especially from a few AltspaceVR employees – all agreeing that he should save the company, at present this doesn’t look like the route Luckey may go to step back into the VR industry.

It’s a sad but not uncommon occurrence that VR businesses will go belly up. While investment is pouring in not everybody is going to get a piece of it. While AltspaceVR was successful to begin with, either because of a poor business model, lack of investor interest – or actually both – today is the last day for the social app that just wanted to bring people together.

AltspaceVR isn’t going without one last hurrah however. There’s going to be a farewell party at 8pm EST / 5pm PST today (1am BST, 4th Aug). So whether you were there at the beginning or you’ve just bought a compatible VR headset, you may want to checkout this early pioneer of social VR before it’s gone for good.

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