Samsung Electronics Co. Launches The Galaxy Note 4 Smartphone, Gear S Smartwatch And Gear Virtual-Reality Headset
A visitor tries out a Samsung Electronics Co. Galaxy Gear Virtual-Reality (VR) headset, jointly developed by Samsung and Oculus VR Inc., at Samsung's flagship store in Seoul, South Korea, Sept. 24, 2014.  Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

This Startup Is Solving Virtual Reality's Biggest Problem

Soon-to-be-released virtual reality technology offers users a window into immersive, rich, and beautiful new worlds. Wearing a VR headset, you can swim with a whale or stargaze while floating in space. But the problem with exploring these places is that you’re mostly on your own. Even if you’re physically seated near your friends when you slip your goggles on, you're alone once you're inside.

AltspaceVR, a Redwood City, Calif.-based startup, is working on a cure to this digital loneliness. It's developing a virtual reality platform in which people can connect with one another in a kind of digital lobby. Represented by humanoid avatars, AltspaceVR users can speak with one another, communicate via body language and share experiences. It works whether users are wearing the cheaper Samsung Gear VR headset, or the high-end Oculus Rift or HTC Vive Pre. And it could be a game-changer for the burgeoning virtual reality space.

Even though AltspaceVR is currently in beta, the virtual world is already teeming with activity. Users "standing" close to one another can enjoy simple conversations, while the voices of far-away avatars are filtered out to cut down on noise. Users can challenge one another to in-world games like chess. And they can sit around virtual screens playing the same footage for all viewers simultaneously, like movies or TV shows.

A technology that lets people chat and play games with one another isn't technologically revolutionary on its own. But AltspaceVR is doing something profound: It's creating a brand new space, one where you can hang out with your friends no matter their real-world locations. And that is taking a lot of the loneliness out of virtual reality, typically a more solo affair.

Read more: I finally tried virtual reality and it moved me to tears

AltspaceVR is now busy developing live virtual events for people to enjoy, just like the real-life bar down the street hosts karaoke nights to attract new customers. During one such gathering, AltspaceVR users met up for a viewing party on video game streaming site Twitch, a good match for the company's tech-savvy users. AltspaceVR is also hosting tabletop Dungeons and Dragons games, complete with digital die.

In another experiment, AltspaceVR is hosting live stand-up routines featuring talents from Jash, a comedy network founded by Sarah Silverman, Michael Cera, and Reggie Watts. The events have the potential to show just how real virtual reality is. Perhaps more than any other performing art, stand-up comedy is something you have to see with others to fully appreciate. For the audience, that “you had to be there” element will be in effect. But will it be enough? There’s something about the guy laughing uncontrollably behind you at a comedy show that can tickle your funny bone even more than the actual joke. But the question is, can you virtually catch a case of the giggles?

See The Incredibly Goofy Evolution of Virtual Reality Headsets

Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover was meant to explore the surface of Mars and send back information.
"Reality +" at the Virtual Reality Systems 93 show was described as a next generation, multi-player virtual reality entertainment system that gave a high sense of movement in a computer-generated world revealed in a head-mounted display.
The 3-player Budweiser virtual reality mask at the Food Marketing Institute's International Supermarket Industry Convention and Educational Expostion in Chicago.
A Virtual Reality contraption at the Sci Fi Channel booth at The National Cable Television Association annual convention, in San Francisco.
Soldier training using a virtual reality-simulated 3-D shootout at an Army facility.
A visitor checking out a virtual reality head-set at the G7 Information Society Showcase taking place at the European Parliament. The head-set was linked to a camera elsewhere in the building which the visitor could control through head movements.
A researcher at Tokyo University's Intelligent Modeling Laboratory wearing 3-D glasses, extending his hands to touch carbon atoms in the microscopic world at the laboratory's virtual reality room.
Visitors enjoy virtual reality driving with 3-D goggles and driving simulators for the presentation of Japan's automaker Nissan at the Tokyo Motor Show in Tokyo.
A visitor to the " Ars Electronica in a dish installation " Humphrey II" , which allowed virtual free flight through a 3D reconstruction of the city of Linz.
A girl wore a full color head mounted display with a built-in camera as Japan's machinery maker Hitachi Zosen and Shimadzu unveiled a wearable computer, consisting of the HMD and a palm sized Windows XP PC with a pointing device at a virtual reality exhibition in Tokyo.
Lt. David Shipley of the Adams County Sheriff's Department watched an interactive video that replicated the experiences of a schizophrenic patient having auditory and visual hallucinations while attempting to refill a prescription at a pharmacy.
Valeria Petkova, right, and student Andrew Ketterer, left, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, tested the 'body-swap' illusion, a method whereby people can experience the illusion that either a mannequin or another person's body is their own body.
Raphael Pirker from Switzerland, founder of Team BlackSheep used virtual reality goggles to simulate the sensation of flight in the real world during a demonstration, flying from the perspective of a model aircraft, during a session of LeWeb'12 in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
A man seeking a job was equipped with 3D spectacles with sensors as he trained in Clermont-Ferrand, central France with avatars (background) in a virtual reality cube, at business incubator Pascalis.
Peter Kenny Jan Torpus, director of Lifeclipper project, tested the immersive augmented reality equipment in St Johanns Park in Basel, Switzerland.
Professor Karl Oldhafer, chief physician of general and visceral surgery at the Asklepios Hospital Hamburg-Barmbek, before liver surgery. Oldhafer used augmented reality, which allowed the liver to be filmed with an iPad and overlaid during the operation with virtual 3D models reconstructed from the real organ. This procedure helped locate critical structures such as tumors and vessels and was expected to improve the quality of transferring pre-operational resection plans into actual surgery.
British television presenter Rachel Riley showed a virtual-reality headset called Gear VR during a Samsung event ahead of the consumer electronic fair IFA in Berlin.
Tim Draper, Founder and Managing partner of 'Draper Fisher Jurvetson', tried out the latest in virtual reality technology the 2014 Kairos Global Summit at Ritz-Carlton Laguna Nigel in Dana Point, California.
A man played a game with the virtual reality head-mounted display 'Oculus Rift' at International Games Week in Berlin. The display transfers the eye movements to the game in real time.
Microsoft's Lorraine Bardeen demonstrates HoloLens headset during an event at the company's headquarters in Redmond, Wash. on Jan. 21, 2015.
1988 Andrew Mishkin wearing a 3-D virtual display helmet that is connected to a six-wheeled roving vehicle. The rover w

Roger Ressmeyer—Corbis
1 of 20

That speaks to a fundamental problem with virtual reality. I can stand on the deck of a shipwreck and reach out to touch a massive blue whale, and so can the next person — just like we can both hear the same joke. But we are not the same people. We bring different perspectives with us to virtual experiences, as we do with real ones — and we get different things out of them. The loneliness of virtual reality isn’t so much about being alone in a headset as much as it is about having trouble communicating an experience's impact on us. At least with AltspaceVR, maybe two people can stand on the same shipwreck and touch the same whale, together. And that's a different — and arguably better — experience altogether.

TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website. Offers may be subject to change without notice.