What’s next for virtual reality? Think social

View of AltSpace VR.
Source: AltSpace VR

Virtual reality may give a whole new meaning to being social online.

Oculus, Samsung and Google have all made headlines with their virtual reality technology. But to keep consumers' attention they'll need to take VR beyond the laboratory stage. And the start-up Altspace VR is betting that will mean enabling people to meet up and interact in a VR setting.

"What we are about is shared experiences in virtual reality, we are about having that feeling of actually being there," said Eric Romo, Altspace VR's founder and chief executive officer.

Taking VR to the next level

While VR has long gotten lots of buzz in the media, it's still in its infancy.

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Currently, users are pretty limited in what they can actually do while wearing a virtual reality headset. Sure, there are immersive visuals, but in general users can only look around at the environment and make limited movements. Romo said to take VR to the next level, it needs to include a social element.

"Meeting in virtual reality you get the same nonverbal communication you would in real life. You are able to see someone else's body language and you can understand why they are looking that way or what they are looking at," Romo said.

The Redwood, Calif.-based company's software enables users to meet up in a VR setting in the form of an avatar and do things, have conversations, share online content and play games.

Altspace VR partnered with Intel to demonstrate its technology at CES earlier this month and to show how its technology—along with Intel's RealSense 3-D cameras, which track hands—could be used together to enable users to toss a ball back and forth in a virtual reality setting.

Beyond consumers, Romo said he envisions a time in the not-so-distant future where people may put on a virtual reality headset to attend a meeting across the world.

A growing market

By 2018, the consumer virtual reality is estimated to reach $5.2 billion, according to estimates by the VR-focused consulting firm KZero. Such growth has spurred investors to make big investments in the space.

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Last October Google led a $542 million Series B funding in the augmented reality company Magic Leap. And in November Intel lead a $9.37 million investment in Avegant, the creators of the VR enabled headset called Glyph.

Facebook, though, is making some of the most notable investments in the space. The social media giant snapped up Oculus VR in March for $2 billion. And then in December Oculus purchased two smaller VR start-ups for an undisclosed amount.

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According to a recent Reuters report Facebook's Oculus arm is slated for significant growth this year as the company seeks to hire over 50 new positions for its virtual reality division.

While Altspace VR's software is still in beta, the company's technology has also attracted the attention of some notable investors. The 2-year old start-up has raised a little over $5 million in seed funding and is backed by Google Ventures, Dolby Family Ventures, Tencent and Formation 8, which was one of the initial investors in Oculus Rift.