Mark Zuckerberg’s vision of a sanitized, hypercapitalist metaverse is likely never to be as compelling or idiosyncratic as VRChat, a virtual reality community that has been home to fans of anime, Furries and a host of other subcultures since 2014. That is my main conclusion from We met in virtual realitythe first documentary entirely shot at VRChat, which premiered today at the Sundance Film Festival.
There’s no way Zuck’s metaverse would allow people to wear protected avatars without paying a ton, attend exotic clubs to receive (or give) virtual dances, or allow users to build whatever they want. VRChat, as he portrays it , is basically a proto-metaverse in which anything is possible. And for many, it served as a key social hub during the pandemic, a place where they can forget about the world, relax with friends, and perhaps find love.
But, of course, such is the nature of virtually every online community. We are social animals – people have always been able to connect with each other through the BBS, IRC, Usenet and the multitude of chat forums and services that inhabited the early internet. I spent most of the 90s hanging out in anime and toy chat rooms, the kinds of places that today’s connected youth would probably find weird. Still, the people I met there helped me survive the worst parts of high school and high school. These relationships, and the internet itself, have shaped me into what I am (for better or worse).
We met in virtual reality proves that the unbridled, experimental sense of the online community is still alive and well today, despite the relentless consolidation of Big Tech. But now, instead of staring at tiny CRT monitors, people are using VR headphones to explore fully realized environments. Hardcore VRChat users are also investing in powerful computing devices as well as upgrades like finger and full body tracking. In the 90s I was grateful to get another 16 MB of RAM so I could have more browser windows open. Today, VRChat believers can communicate in American Sign Language or show their anime avatars their belly dancing skills.
Hunting approaches his subjects through the eyes of an anthropologist, without any judgment of their sometimes ridiculous avatars (do all anime ladies have to have a shiver, Alive or deadbreast physics level?). We met in virtual reality it starts as a relaxed socializing movie – we follow a group of friends as they drink virtual drinks and go for fun rides in roughly made VR cars – but it quickly moves beyond the news of its surroundings. One person credits his VRChat girl for helping them “turn on the sound” after being silent for two years. The exotic performer explains that her ability to dance for people at VRChat helped her grieve over a family tragedy and cope with an attack of alcoholism.
The film shows how this exotic dancer, a young woman based in the UK, established a romantic relationship with another VRChat user in Miami. These types of cyber relationships are nothing new, but the VR platform has enabled them much more than trading links and memes via IM. They could coexist in space, go on dates to new environments every night. I won’t spoil where things end up for a couple, but I can say it wouldn’t be nearly as effective outside of VR.
We met in virtual reality effectively conveys why people would gravitate to VRChat, especially during a pandemic. But that doesn’t completely reflect the wonder of exploring these environments on your own. Seeing people jump on a virtual rollercoaster isn’t nearly as exciting as working, where your entire field of vision is covered and you can easily get dizzy. But I don’t blame Hunting too much; his job was to cook a VR experience so people could enjoy it on a 2D screen, and the film is mostly successful in that regard. The film was shot using a virtual camera that could mimic all the functionality of a typical shooter, from focus points to the aperture level. So, although it was produced in an alien environment that most people are not familiar with, it still seems like a traditional documentary.
Hunting has spent the last few years making VR documentaries, starting with a few short films as well as . It is clear from We met in virtual reality not to come to the community just for the sake of a short story. Instead, he sees humanity behind avatars and virtual connections. These people are not just running away from their lives with VR – their lives are getting richer because of it.
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