It's easy to criticize virtual reality for being isolating and a bit anti-social, but there's a lot of potential for connection with shared VR experiences. One good example is Life of Us, the latest entry from the VR studio Within and director Chris Milk. It lets you and a friend (in my case, our Reviews Editor, Cherlynn Low) relive the story of evolution on Earth. And while it's relatively short, we found it to be fascinating.
We started out as single-celled organisms floating around in primordial soup. That was trippy enough, but things got even weirder when we realize we could talk to each other through the HTC Vive's microphones. Thanks to some audio processing, our voices ended up sounding high-pitched like characters from Alvin and the Chipmunks. It was a bit annoying at first, but it helped to make us feel like we were actually tiny organisms.
As soon as we got our bearings in the microscopic world, we were transformed into prehistoric fish. Right after that, we turned into small dinosaurs (my guess is that we were a pair of Dilophosaurus, due to the neck frill) running away from a T-Rex. At that point, the experience built up momentum and we just kept moving. We jumped off of a cliff and became fire-breathing pterodactyls (they didn't do that, we know), and we were both surprised to find we could flap our wings in virtual reality.
There's probably some sort of philosophical commentary about the need to keep racing as we evolved, but mostly it just made for a frenetic and immersive experience. Our playthrough was also projected onto a large screen at the Tribeca VR arcade, which also gave us a sizable audience for our evolutionary adventure. The sense of shared discovery throughout Life of Us was fascinating -- like when we both realized we could breathe fire -- but it was even more fulfilling when I realized I we were effectively putting on a show for the crowd.
Eventually, we turned into apes running through a forest, flinging tiny monkeys that climbed onto us. And we got to relive our actual urban lives as virtual humans running through a city, with briefcases overflowing with seemingly infinite sheets of paper. (Just like actual New York City!) The experience culminated in a robot dance party -- which, personally, feels like a pretty optimistic view of our potential future.
Life of Us isn't exactly groundbreaking, but it's a solid experience that shows off how VR lets you easily step into new roles. And while it would be interesting enough on its own, it's even better as a shared experience. It feels like the difference between seeing a movie on your own, and seeing it right next to a friend. There's room for connection, even when you're wearing headsets and blind to the world.