Virtual reality (VR) has become an increasingly popular tool for entertainment and even therapeutic purposes. Taking it one step further, VR also has the potential to foster meaningful social connections between those who are using it.
Through a decade of immersive experiences in the VR industry, including pioneering the launch of a social VR game, Richard Hoagland witnessed the profound impact of social interactions in digital spaces. Now, alongside his talented team at Keyhorse-backed company VRTogether, Richard is building a platform to address isolation and loneliness, offering a unique approach to enhance human connection. With VR, AR, and XR technologies continuously advancing, VRTogether aims to be at the forefront of meaningful social connections in digital spaces, promoting well-being and enriching the lives of individuals.
We asked Richard a few questions about his journey, inspirations, and predictions for the future of VR.
How did you become interested in VR?
RH: While in college, I worked for the Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments at the University of Kentucky. The center was a playground of cool tech, including motion capture systems and multi-projector setups. This was before Microsoft Kinect and Oculus Rift had been released, but due to this tech, I was able to build prototypes such as a baseball simulation where a real bat and ball were tracked to hit a virtual ball on the screen, and a multi-projector setup to simulate texture and erosion on physical objects. The ability to overcome challenges and solve problems through technology that operated as a medium between the real and digital excited me. When the Oculus Rift DK1 was announced, I saw it as an opportunity to continue building these types of experiences commercially. I have been working in VR for 10 years now, including leading the team that launched the first social VR game for mobile VR headsets back in 2015. Watching this industry mature and knowing what is on the horizon for VR, AR, and XR has been very exciting and keeps me interested.
Most VR research in health and wellness has looked at the individual in isolation using the technology, but we know that the true power of the technology is realized when the individual has access to both solitary experiences and social experiences as needed.
Tell us about your team: Who’s on it, and how did you meet?
RH: My core team members are Stef Keegan and Al Baker. I met Stef when we were both at the BoostVC incubator in Silicon Valley back in 2015. I was building the game Daydream Blue and Stef was building Pixel Ripped; we were the only two game studios in the cohort. I reached out to Stef when I began to build the VRTogether prototype. Stef is a very talented 3d artist and producer out of England. Al Baker is also on the team as a very talented senior developer. I met Al back when we both were involved with the local game development community in Lexington. The great thing about a background in video game development is that I have a network of incredibly talented folks from across the world we tap into when needed. The list of other folks we work with is pretty long, including a great group of collaborators at the University of Kentucky.
Where do you see VR for social connection headed in the future?
RH: Social connection in digital spaces has become a part of everyone’s lives. Covid accelerated this change, but with many of the younger generations, as well as gamers and other groups, social connection through digital spaces has been a key part of developing identity and friendship. Virtual reality provides a meaningful layer that we need as humans that other technologies cannot offer, which is the physicality of other people, which is called co-presence. There is a lot to learn about this phenomenon. Most VR research in health and wellness has looked at the individual in isolation using the technology, but we know that the true power of the technology is realized when the individual has access to both solitary experiences and social experiences as needed. VRTogether is an application to provide this social layer. Our SBIR research was the first research we are aware of that looked specifically at co-presence during real-world activities and co-presence when two people perform the same activity in our virtual reality app VRTogether.
Looking forward, VR will improve in features, performance, and user experience, the boundaries between VR, AR, and XR will be less obvious, and the adoptions of these technologies will continue to grow. We are also going to continue to see significant use cases of VR for health and wellness, including what we are developing with VRTogether to help reduce isolation and loneliness. Ultimately, it will be the interactivity and physicality of VR for social connection that will have the most impact. People will find groups of similar interests, feel physically present together, and interact together, necessary parts of social interaction for humans that are absent from other forms of technology-mediated social interaction.
What does success look like to VRTogether in the short term and long term?
RH: Short term, we are building a healthy company with solid revenue and demonstrating the impact of VRTogether through research. Long term, our goal is to be the meaningful social connection application for XR, improving the health and wellness of millions of at-risk individuals.