August 18, 2022 10:21 AM EDT

Last week, I met documentarian Joe Hunting in a wooded clearing near a burbling stream. Chirping birds flew overhead in the azure sky as a Shiba Inu pawed at the ground a few yards away. Hunting got to work readying three cameras to film us during the interview. His spiky bangs blew in the breeze.

My hair didn’t blow, however, because I didn’t have any, and my skin was the texture of a microphone. I had giant, cat-like ears, and bug eyes with no irises. Joe’s right eye kept popping out of its socket, and his tripods and cameras were completely invisible.

This wasn’t some demented dream—it was my first-ever interview conducted in virtual reality (VR), where Hunting is very much at home. His documentary, We Met in Virtual Reality, was released on HBO Max last month to critical acclaim. The film follows a set of real people as they live their lives within VR— taking sign language classes, embarking on road trips, staging raucous weddings, and delivering heartfelt eulogies, all within the app. The filming took 14 months, with Hunting often spending 15 hours a week inside the app VRChat. For our interview, I put on an Oculus Quest headset and immersed myself in his world.

Many metaverse skeptics wonder why anyone would forsake the real world in favor of a false one. Many are similarly concerned by buzzword-filled metaverse visions from major companies, who want to monetize the next era of digital life. Questions about data collection, privacy, and the selling of digital objects linger.

Neither Hunting nor his film have the answer to all of those worries. But the film does offer a compelling look at the playfulness and joy people are already finding in virtual worlds. And Hunting himself is a living testament to how virtual reality can change lives. While shooting the film, Hunting, now 23, found his footing as a filmmaker, forged 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, seamless aspect of his 21st century life. “In VR, I felt the most present I’ve ever felt,” he says. “I’ve found a family through this process.”

Falling in love with virtual reality

We Met in Virtual Reality is Hunting’s full-length debut. Already an avid gamer, Hunting entered VRChat while in film school four years ago and was immediately intrigued by the energy emanating out of its participants. “My documentary film brain lit up, seeing all of these people, learning their stories, and seeing their creativity,” he says.

While at home in a small town 40 miles outside of London, Hunting met a hot dog, a space bear, and an anime bodybuilder with a dragon tail. He met VR comedians, salsa instructors, and fashion designers. Most of the people Hunting met in VRChat used full body tracking equipment, or small VR sensors that attach to your ankles, elbows, and hips, allowing your corresponding avatar to gesticulate, dance, and exercise. To film their activity, Hunting paid $9 to upgrade VRChat’s standard camera function to something more high-end—the equivalent of a filmmaker’s fancy rig.

Hunting immediately felt comfortable among VRChat users and was soon spending over 15 hours a week inside the app. “Meeting someone in VR is much more playful than meeting in the real world,” Hunting says. “You’re immediately on a wave of freedom, fluidity, and playfulness. You’re speaking to someone personality-to-personality before anything else. You’re not worried about how you look or how your body might be positioned in that moment. You’re just in it.”

One of the people that Hunting met in VRChat was a sign-language teacher named Jenny, who appears as a glowing anime-style avatar with bubblegum-pink hair. Jenny is perhaps the central protagonist of We Met in Virtual Reality. She delivers poignant monologues about how her VRChat community helped pull her out of mental health crises and taught her new skills. “Making friends here is sometimes what saves people’s lives or is what gets them up out of bed in the morning,” she says in the film.

After Hunting finished the documentary, he says that he and Jenny “very quickly realized that we didn’t want to stop spending time with each other.” The pair are now in a relationship. When I call Hunting for this interview, he’s staying with Jenny in Los Angeles; she pops into the room at one point to remove a file from her computer. “Falling in love in VR, it can be very special to see someone for their expression of themselves,” Hunting says. “Before meeting the person, you know the person that they want to be. And it felt like a strength and an excitement to help them get there.”

Even when Hunting and Jenny are in the same room, they still don their VR headsets to take dance classes, meet up with old friends, and explore different new worlds. “VR is still a core part of our lives,” Hunting says.

The coming worlds

The VRChat app costs $10 a month, but there’s no buying and selling inside of the game. This has benefits and drawbacks: while it keeps the space free of ads and focused on hobbyists who truly want to be there, it also limits dance instructors from getting paid for their classes, for example.

This stands in sharp contrast to other present and future conceptions of metaverse worlds. The online game Roblox has an in-game currency which can be used to buy things for your avatar. Crypto virtual worlds like Decentraland are anchored by NFTs designed to be bought and sold—millions of dollars changed hands over virtual real estate there and in other worlds this year. These transactions add up. Nick Clegg, Meta’s president of global affairs, forecasted in May that the metaverse could eventually become a $200 billion industry employing 770,000 people. Meta, accordingly, is spending billions of dollars with the hopes of being at the forefront of that revolution.

Hunting is ambivalent about the increasing financialization of virtual spaces, and he appreciates the simplicity of VRChat. “The aspect of owning property or an avatar or a certain item… the value doesn’t mean anything to me,” he says. “I care about my communities, my friends, my family, the creative freedom and the fluidity that we have in this space.”

Hunting acknowledges the potential drawbacks of worlds like VRChat, including worries that it will be hard to return to the real world. Frances Haugen, a Facebook whistleblower, voiced concern about potential mental health and body image issues in a TIME interview last year: “When you go into the metaverse, your avatar is a little more handsome or pretty than yourself. You have better clothes than we have in reality… And you take your headset off and you go to brush your teeth at the end of the night. And maybe you just don’t like yourself in the mirror as much.”

Read More: Why Frances Haugen Is ‘Super Scared’ About Facebook’s Metaverse

Hunting says he hasn’t heard that concern expressed by any of his virtual friends. “Taking off the headset is just leaving that fantasy truth behind, and coming back to your authentic truth—but carrying that into yourself and being one with your avatar,” he says.

Hunting acknowledges that hyper-sexualized avatars of female bodies can reinforce stereotypes. But, he says, “my intention is to celebrate the positive aspects and to reflect upon the negatives and how we can improve on them.”

Learning curves

I didn’t love my VR experience as much as Hunting loved his. I’ve only explored my Oculus headset a handful of times before this, and found that its weight pinches my temples and the bridge of my nose in a way that keeps me from feeling fully immersed.

After sorting out some logistics over Zoom, Hunting decided to bring me into the park, which I immediately found both surreal and soothing in its tranquil lushness. “I love this world—it’s great therapy, I find: coming in, stroking dogs, playing fetch,” Hunting said. As Hunting set up his invisible cameras, I toggled through options for avatars before settling on a microphone cat, which I felt fit with my journalistic purpose.

Hunting looked like a cartoonish Wii character but was clearly a real guy. He lacked a tongue but nodded along to 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 take off my headset from time to time to look at a Google Doc, where I’d prepared my notes. (Anybody know if VRChat has a notepad function?)

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 chucked it. The dog bounded over to pick it up, then delivered it back to Hunting, sticking its tongue out and closing its eyes in bliss when Hunting patted it on the head. The dog was undeniably cute and fun to interact with, but for me, it felt like we’d landed in a hollow middle ground: better than not having a virtual dog, but nowhere near the real thing.

At the same time, I saw how naturally Hunting moved through VRChat; how it allowed him to tap into newfound aspects of his persona, creativity, and craft. For Hunting and the people who use it, VR has enabled them to find community and identity, even if they don’t feel at home in the real world.

Hunting believes that virtual reality’s appeal will continue to increase as headsets get lighter and graphics improve. And he will continue making films that serve as gateways into this new world and era. “If we want to take a meeting or catch up 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 in connecting,” he says. “I think VR will be as accessible as a smartphone.”

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