AltspaceVR Open Beta: 'Skype, With Presence' (UPDATED)

Most of the VR demos we've seen over the past few months were all solo experiences. There might have been someone else in the room either explaining the demo or watching what we were seeing through another monitor, but there was no one else sharing the experience at the same time. However, that could change very soon. A company called AltspaceVR is currently in the beta stages of testing a new kind of VR experience that brings multiple users together in a shared virtual space.

We spoke to the company's CEO, Eric Romo, about what AltspaceVR could offer.

The best way to describe what Romo and his company are working on is "Skype with a presence." Imagine having a corporate meeting, or just simply chatting with friends, in a VR space and having the ability to share 2D content from the web such as a collection of GIFs, or watching a Netflix movie together. Or, thinking even bigger, you could convert that 2D content into 3D.

The way it works is that each person has their own avatar in the VR space. Users can set up private rooms to allow only certain people into the conversation. Most of the interaction is accomplished by selecting buttons, but Romo told us that the team is working on more non-verbal communication such as hand gestures or facial patterns with the help of Intel's RealSense camera, the Kinect and the Leap Motion sensor.

Another key development area is sound. Romo wants the experience to be as immersive as possible, so Altspace is also working on improving the sound quality -- specifically, directional and spatial audio. That way, when someone is talking to you in the VR space, it actually sounds like they're sitting right next to you.

There's still a lot of work to do, but the number of applications that are already possible with AltspaceVR is impressive. For example, a group of testers joined a room and played a small Dungeons and Dragons campaign. A quick look at the upcoming events page shows a movie night, where users can all gather in one room and collectively watch the movie Snowpiercer.

In terms of a head-mounted display, Romo said the team has been mostly using an Oculus DK2, but they're also looking at other options such as Razer's OSVR and the HTC Vive. There's even some work being done in the mobile space with the help of the Samsung Gear VR. Those who don't own an HMD can actually still participate in Altspace by using a 2D version of whatever session you decide to join.

For hardware requirements, AltspaceVR won't have particularly demanding specs. In fact, Romo told us that the development team is mostly using a MacBook Pro for their sessions. Everything brought into the virtual space is rendered locally on the user's end. Right now, AltspaceVR runs at 1080p, so the visual demand isn't too steep yet.

Bandwidth demands aren't particularly high, either. The only time where bandwidth might be an issue is with the amount of content brought into the virtual space. According to Romo, voice data only requires 10-30 kbps. But other applications, such as streaming video or simply the number of people in the room, might pose a challenge to your Internet connection. In the end, you don't need an especially powerful computer to use AltspaceVR. As long as you have Windows 7/8/8.1 or OS X Mavericks and you meet the requirements below, you can join a session.

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Header Cell - Column 0 2D Mode (Minimum)VR Mode (Minimum)VR Mode (Recommended)
ProcessorIntel Core 2 Duo (3 GHz)AMD Athlon 64 X2 6400+ (3.2 GHz)Intel Core 2 Duo (3 GHz)AMD Athlon 64 X2 6400+ (3.2 GHz)Intel Core i5-3470 (3.2 GHz)AMD FX-6300 (3.5 GHz)
Graphics512 MB DirectX 9 compatible graphicsDiscrete GPUs: Nvidia GeForce GTX 560 (1 GB)AMD Radeon HD 7770 (1 GB)Discrete GPUs: Nvidia GeForce GTX 660 (2 GB)AMD Radeon HD 7870 (2 GB)
Storage1 GB available space1 GB available space1 GB available space

AltspaceVR has gone through five different beta tests, each lasting 25 minutes. The current beta version is different than past iterations because it is an open beta. Users can sign up online through AltspaceVR's website and try it out for themselves. New features have been included, such as a Presenter Mode, additional events, larger room capacities, and new 3D images. The SDK used to create the images will also be available later this month.

The open beta is another chance for Romo and his company to test the limits of AltspaceVR. There's much work to be done between now and the end of the year, when Romo plans to release the final version of Altspace.

It's an ambitious project, doubly more so in the uncharted territory of VR, but considering what is already available in AltspaceVR and what should be coming in later development stages, it's something that we'll be keeping our eyes on as more and more VR technology emerges from the industry.

UPDATE, 5/19/2015, 11:25am PT: AltspaceVR clarified that the previous beta sessions lasted for a full weekend, not 25 minutes as we initially stated.

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