The metaverse was built to bring people together, create connections across the globe and consolidate them in one virtual space. Many experiences in virtual reality (VR) are currently in single-user capacity, but to tap into the full potential of the metaverse, the immersive community needs to develop seamless multi-user experiences. Our Immersive Month partners and top UK studio for augmented and virtual reality innovation, Zubr, have been working on doing just that, and we wanted to conduct a deep dive on how this will impact the future of the metaverse.

There is huge merit in bringing multiple people together into a shared experience. It increases engagement, increases entertainment value, and brings natural social behaviour into what is often an otherwise isolating and artificial virtual world.

To explain the benefits of multi-user metaverse applications, its best to simply illustrate it through examples of when it has been successfully implemented in VR and AR. Zubr has built some powerful networked multi-user solutions in recent years, but how will they be driving the future of metaverse interactions?

Increased engagement

First and foremost, a key finding from building multi-user metaverse applications is that it increased participant engagement. The extraverted amongst us will agree an experience shared with a friend is more powerful than doing something alone. Even mundane tasks are more fulfilling when others are there. Shared laughter, fear or intrigue are all emotive responses that crave human validation.

They’re also heightened by one another – we spur each other on to laugh harder and for longer, we build hysteria in groups to intensify fear, we question more when there is a person to use as a sounding board. These are all emotive experiences that increase any given engagement within whatever game we’re playing, filming we’re watching or task we’re completing; and it’s not exempt in the metaverse.

Zubr aptly demonstrated this in action with its Limina Immersive: VR Cinema project, firstly with a beta version in 2018 and followed by an official launch at the Watershed in 2019. This project gave groups a shared virtual reality experience by creating a unique software system that powered the Limina VR Cinema at its own public venue during the Watershed virtual reality festival and at pop-ups around the UK.

Virtual reality is becoming increasingly popular but is still inaccessible to lower socio-economic groups, and people who don’t consider themselves tech-experts. It can also seem intimidating – not everyone wants to put on a headset and bumble about in front of other people. This is exacerbated by the fact it is often a solitary experience. Limina Immersive wanted to break down the barriers that prevent people from enjoying virtual reality experiences and find a way for people to enjoy shared virtual reality together as a group.

Catherine Allen, founder and CEO of Limina Immersive, explains more on the concept of this group experience: “There is so much great story-driven and artistic VR content coming out at the moment, however there are not many ways for it to reach the general public… We have spent the last year or so in research-mode learning as much as we can about how VR can work as a collective cultural experience that people would do in their spare time as a day or evening out – much like theatre or cinema.”

Over 5000 people attended the VR cinema in Bristol, and it brought great reviews. Stephen Lightbrown, @spokeandpencil on Twitter commented, “Today I danced on the waves of the ocean, free dived with dolphins, breathed on the beach and looked out whilst floating above tropical islands all thanks to virtual reality theatre at Limina Immersive. Pretty amazing doing all this whilst sat in my wheelchair.”

Attendees were brought into the cinema room and given a headset. Once everything was activated, participants were transported to an immersive abstract landscape, assisted by a calming voice guiding them through this new virtual reality. As soon as  everyone in the audience was comfortable, the curated VR playlist began. The whole group then shared the experience simultaneously, eventually removing their headsets at the same time and sharing their thoughts in a chilled, ‘decompression zone.’

The impact of this was clear: more people gained access to VR as it was delivered in a familiar cinema-style experience, which gave people confidence whilst put them at ease faster than usual in VR as they didn’t feel exposed or on the spot, but instead, part of a group.

Increased entertainment

Another plus side of creating multi-user applications for the metaverse is that it’s simply more entertaining. Zubr found this when the team collaborated with Simple Things Festival and the University of Bristol’s Smart Internet Lab to bring Aïsha Devi’s track I’m Not Always Where My Body Is into an ambisonic virtual reality music video, nestled amongst otherworldly visuals supplied by Pussykrew. You can learn more about Zubr’s process in our piece detailing what volumetric video is.

Amy Spreadbury, Project Manager at Zubr, tells us, “With the need for a strong focus on musical quality, we called upon our experience building VR spatial audio content using Google’s powerful Resonance Audio technology.

“We scattered 10 separate stems from Aïsha Devi’s track across our virtual stage, to create a surreal audiovisual soundscape that reacts and evolves as you move through it; allowing participants to discover their own unique, multisensory ‘mix’ of the performance. The vocal tracks were attached to Aïsha’s holographic presence, moving with her as she jumps around the virtual stage, whilst bass and percussion were enhanced visually with explosive particle systems and effects.

“This VR music video experience was no “armchair” 360 video. Building upon our previous spatial VR experiences such as Alpha Regio, we fused augmented and virtual reality technologies to enable participants to navigate the “open-world” at their leisure. To achieve this, we established a ten square-metre zone in Millenium Square, which provides more than enough roaming space for all participants at once.”

Underpinning the virtual reality music video itself is Zubr’s very own multi-user networking system. This system enables up to fifteen participants to take part in the experience together as if they are all attending an intimate music gig.

A key factor in creating this shared space is allowing participants to see each other. Each headset is represented in VR by a virtual alter-ego, in the form of various 3D animal skulls. As well as adding to the surreal nature of the piece, each participant’s experience is further enhanced by witnessing the actions and demeanours of everyone else around them.

This project took the idea of going to a gig with friends to a whole new level by creating an immersive shared world with stunning bespoke visuals which complimented and elevated Aisha’s music. Once again, taking a familiar concept that people are used to enjoying together and transforming it into virtual reality enhanced the experience for everyone. 

Increased learning retention

Since deploying multi-user applications improves engagement and entertainment value, a natural consequence is that these immersive experiences have better learning retention. In fact, VR training increases knowledge retention by up to 75%, also increasing engagement by 60% and focus by 20%.

Learning and training is a key way in which we can use VR. This innovative method opens us up to a world of possibilities, enabling people to learn in a fun interactive way, whilst also simulating training to potentially dangerous activities, without any risk of harm.

Zubr teamed up with HS2 Align to create an advanced Learning And Development platform with a twist. The training package ‘Alignment’ is a half day on-boarding and induction programme which covers HS2’s health and safety and Align Aim High values, along with EDI values, stakeholder engagement, environmental issues and community engagement. It comprises of a group of up to 40 people completing tasks including hazard identification, EDI quizzes, Augmented Reality games and compliance, before analysing and discussing as a group.

In order to keep each participant engaged, Zubr utilised a number of different experiences. These included large augmented reality interactive models that let users identify hazards in a shared 3D scene, multiple choice quizzes and physical exercises to encourage the group to move around. To cater for the diverse workforce, Zubr also developed an app with 10 main languages.

The feedback was very positive to this project, with many people reporting they got to know their colleagues quicker through using AR.

Increased accessibility for all

Experiencing immersive tech shouldn’t be a privilege reserved for the fortunate few. Creating VR that enables people to delve into an alternative world with their family and friends is crucial to ensure the tech remains an open source of opportunities. This is a value Zubr wanted to emulate whilst working with The Eden Project.

The essence of The Eden Project is to provide an exciting learning experience for all, both young and old, making it the ideal place to integrate VR to demonstrate how simple it can be to interact with and enjoy alongside one another. So, Zubr created an eye opening VR piece to complement The Eden Project’s Earth Story summer programme, which brought the wider story of Earth’s biodiversity to the forefront of their visitor experience.

The Lost Giants Safari VR adventure was built from the ground up with the purpose of giving guests the chance to see extinct, giant creatures up close. The virtual tour takes guests through a number of biomes, including North American plains, Madagascan scrubland and Eurasian forest – within which they will encounter some of Earth’s great extinct creatures, such as the Giant Elephant Bird and the Irish Elk. The VR was deployed in a dedicated space containing four fabricated ‘safari jeeps’, each one allowing up to six people to share the journey, and was experienced by several thousand people by the end of summer 2019.

Where VR is often seen as an isolated and alienating individual experience, Zubr used its proprietary multi-user VR networking system to create the social group context of a six-person ride carriage. With each VR headset allocated to a seat in the Jeep, visitors see the virtual world from the respective position – and even see motion-tracked avatars to represent each person around them! 

Engaging in a virtual reality safari might seem overwhelming, which is why Zubr ensured its VR for kids still had this shared experience. This enabled deeper discussions about the sights they’d experienced during the virtual reality safari, meaning families, long-term friends and new acquaintances left bonded through an unforgettable experience.

Amy explains more for us: “The most important aspect of this was the fabricated Jeep shells. Built to an exact specification to match our virtual vehicle model, the four Jeeps were scaled and positioned perfectly to maximise the use of the space available, and provide an ideal spectator view for friends and family waiting outside. Completing the illusion was a networked bass speaker under each hood, relaying the virtual engine sound straight from the shared VR experience, and creating a busy garage full of rumbling Safari Jeeps! Leafy canopies, explorer’s lamps and Jerry cans added the finishing touches, and ensured everyone was anticipating the adventure that lay ahead.”

Creating natural social interaction

Underpinning all of these contributing factors to what makes multi-user applications more effective is that it emulates a much more natural social interaction. It bridges the gap between familiar structures and new exciting experiences, allowing individuals, companies and exhibition curators alike to slide into the future rather than taking a big leap of faith.

All of these examples reinforce a behaviour that already exists i.e. going to a gig, driving in a car, training people together – but Zubr brings this into a virtual space, literally augmenting the existing experience to enhance it. 

These 5 factors will all be essential as we transition into the metaverse. As the technology becomes more sophisticated and we begin to see the metaverse used on a daily basis, engagement, entertainment, learning retention, accessibility and social interaction will have to be at the core of this new virtual world in order for it to work successfully.

Shona Wright

Shona covers all things editorial at TechSPARK. She publishes news articles, interviews and features about our fantastic tech and digital ecosystem, working with startups and scaleups to spread the word about the cool things they're up to. She also oversees TechSPARK's social media, sharing the latest updates on everything from investment news to green tech meetups and inspirational stories.