LLast week, I met documentarian Joe Hunting in a wooded glade near a bubbling creek. Chirping birds flew overhead in the azure sky as a Shiba Inu stampeded on the ground a few feet away. Hunting got to work preparing three cameras to film us during the interview. Her spiky bangs blew in the breeze.
My hair didn’t swell, though, because I didn’t have any, and my skin felt like a mic. I had giant cat-like ears and bug eyes with no iris. Joe’s right eye kept popping out of its socket, and his tripods and cameras were completely invisible.
It wasn’t a wild dream – it was my very first interview done in virtual reality (VR), where Hunting is truly at home. his documentary, We met in virtual reality, released on HBO Max last month to critical acclaim. The film follows a set of real people as they live their lives in virtual reality – taking sign language lessons, embarking on road trips, having rowdy weddings and delivering heartfelt praise, all in the app. Filming took 14 months, with Hunting often spending 15 hours a week in the VRChat app. For our interview, I put on an Oculus Quest headset and immersed myself in its universe.
Many metaverse skeptics wonder why anyone would abandon the real world in favor of a fake. Many are also concerned about the buzzword-filled metaverse visions of big business, who want to monetize the next era of digital living. Questions about data collection, privacy and the sale of digital items persist.
Neither Hunting nor his film has the answer to all these concerns. But the film offers a compelling look at the playfulness and joy people are already finding in virtual worlds. And Hunting itself is a living testament to how virtual reality can change lives. While filming the film, the now 23-year-old Hunting found his footing as a filmmaker, formed close friendships, and even fell in love with his now significant other. For him, virtual reality is not a dystopian rabbit hole or a marketing gimmick, but a fundamental and seamless aspect of his life in the 21st century. “In virtual reality, I felt the most present I’ve ever felt,” he says. “I found a family through this process.”
Fall in love with virtual reality
We met in virtual reality is Hunting’s debut album. Already an avid gamer, Hunting entered VRChat while in film school four years ago and was immediately intrigued by the energy radiating from its participants. “My documentary film brain lit up, seeing all these people, learning their stories and seeing their creativity,” he says.
While at home in a small town 40 miles from London, Hunting encountered a hot dog, a space bear and an animated bodybuilder with a dragon tail. He met virtual reality comedians, salsa teachers and fashion designers. Most of the people Hunting met in VRChat used full-body tracking gear or small VR sensors that attach to your ankles, elbows, and hips, allowing your matching avatar to gesture, dance, and swipe. exercise. To film their activity, Hunting paid $9 to upgrade VRChat’s standard camera feature to something more high-end, the equivalent of a filmmaker’s fancy rig.
Hunt immediately felt at home among VRChat users and quickly spent over 15 hours a week in the app. “Meeting someone in virtual reality is much more fun than meeting in the real world,” says Hunting. “You’re immediately on a wave of freedom, fluidity and playfulness. You talk to someone personality to personality before anything else. You don’t worry about how you look or where your body is at that time. You are right in it.
One of the people Hunting met in VRChat was a sign language teacher named Jenny, who appears as a bright anime-style avatar with candy pink hair. Jenny is perhaps the central protagonist of We met in virtual reality. She delivers poignant monologues about how her VRChat community has helped her through mental health crises and taught her new skills. “Making friends here is sometimes what saves people’s lives or gets them up in the morning,” she says in the film.
After Hunting finished the documentary, he says he and Jenny “realized very quickly that we didn’t want to stop spending time together.” The couple are now in a relationship. When I call Hunting for this interview, he’s staying with Jenny in LA; she appears in the room at one point to delete a file from her computer. “Falling in love in VR, it can be very special to see someone for their self-expression,” says Hunting. “Before you meet the person, you know the person they want to be. And it was like a strength and an excitement to help them get there.
Even when Hunting and Jenny are in the same room, they still wear their VR headsets to take dance lessons, catch up with old friends, and explore new worlds. “Virtual reality is still an integral part of our lives,” says Hunting.
worlds to come
The VRChat app costs $10 per month, but there is no in-game buying and selling. focuses on amateurs who really want to be there, it also prevents dance teachers from getting paid for their lessons, for example.
This contrasts sharply with other present and future conceptions of metaverse worlds. The Roblox online game has an in-game currency that can be used to purchase things for your avatar. Crypto virtual worlds like Decentraland are anchored by NFTs designed to be bought and sold – millions of dollars have changed hands in virtual real estate there and in other worlds this year. These transactions add up. Nick Clegg, president of global affairs at Meta, predicted in May that the Metaverse could eventually become a $200 billion industry employing 770,000 people. Meta, therefore, is spending billions of dollars hoping to be at the forefront of this revolution.
Hunting is ambivalent about the growing financialization of virtual spaces, and he appreciates the simplicity of VRChat. “The aspect of owning a property or an avatar or a certain object…the value means nothing to me,” he says. “I care about my communities, my friends, my family, the freedom to create and the fluidity that we have in this space.”
Hunting recognizes the potential downsides of worlds like VRChat, including fears that it’s hard to get back into the real world. Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower, expressed concern about potential mental health and body image issues in a TIME interview last year: “When you enter the metaverse, your avatar is a little more beautiful or pretty than yourself. You have better clothes than us actually… And you take off your helmet and you go brush your teeth at the end of the evening. And maybe you don’t like yourself so much in the mirror.
Read more: Why Frances Haugen is “super scared” of Facebook’s metaverse
Hunting says he hasn’t heard this concern expressed by any of his virtual friends. “Removing the helmet is simply leaving behind that fantasy truth and coming back to your authentic truth, but carrying it within you and becoming one with your avatar,” he says.
Hunting recognizes that hypersexualized avatars of female bodies can reinforce stereotypes. But, he says, “my intention is to celebrate the positives and reflect on the negatives and how we can improve them.”
I didn’t like my VR experience as much as Hunting liked his. I’ve only explored my Oculus headset a handful of times before, and found that its weight pinches my temples and the bridge of my nose in a way that prevents me from feeling fully immersed.
After sorting out the Zoom logistics, Hunting decided to take me to the park, which I immediately found both surreal and soothing in its quiet lushness. “I love this world – it’s great therapy, I find: coming in, petting dogs, playing fetch,” Hunting said. As Hunting set up its invisible cameras, I flipped through the avatar options before choosing a microphone chat, which I thought suited my journalistic purpose.
Hunting looked like a cartoonish Wii character but was clearly a real guy. He had no tongue but nodded at my questioning and moved his hands expressively. The sensory overload was sometimes so disorienting that I couldn’t follow what he was saying. I also had to surreptitiously remove my headphones from time to time to look at a Google Doc, where I had prepared my notes. (Does anyone know if VRChat has a notepad feature?)
At the end of the interview, we walked around the park and towards the virtual Shiba Inu, who looked up, panting. Hunting found a stick and threw it away. The dog jumped up to pick it up, then handed it back to Hunting, sticking its tongue out and closing its eyes in happiness when Hunting patted its head. The dog was undeniably cute and fun to interact with, but to me it felt like I had landed in a hollow middle ground: better than not having a virtual dog, but far from the real thing.
At the same time, I saw how Hunting moved naturally in VRChat; how it allowed him to tap into new aspects of his personality, creativity and art. For Hunting and the people who use it, virtual reality has allowed them to find community and identity, even if they don’t feel at home in the real world.
Hunting believes the appeal of VR will continue to grow as headsets become lighter and graphics improve. And he will continue to make films that serve as gateways to this new world and this new era. “If we want to take a meeting or reunite with family or friends, we can be in an embodied space where we are physically present and we can have a much richer sense of presence by connecting,” he says. “I think virtual reality will be as accessible as a smartphone.”
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