LJoe Hunting was my documentarian. We met in a clearing close to the stream. As a Shiba Iu ran aft, a Shiba inu stood nearby and chirped overhead. Hunting began to prepare three cameras in order to capture the interview. His big, bushy bangs were a breeze to the wind.
My hair didn’t blow, however, because I didn’t have any, and my skin was the texture of a microphone. The ears of my ears looked like a cat’s and I was blessed with large, bug-eyes that were completely devoid of iris. 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, Virtual Reality: We MetTo critical acclaim,, was last month released by HBO Max. 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. Hunting spent 15 hours per week on VRChat during filming, which took fourteen months. To film Hunting’s interview I donned an Oculus Quest headset, and was able to immerse myself into his world.
Metaverse skeptics often wonder why people would choose a fake world over the real one. The metaverse visions of major corporations, which want to profit from the next generation of digital life, are also causing concern. Many questions remain about the sale of digital objects, data collection and privacy.
Hunting and his film don’t have all the answers. However, the film gives a captivating look at how people can find joy in virtual worlds. Hunting, himself a living example of the positive impact virtual reality has on people’s lives, is also a testament. Hunting was 23 when he shot the movie. He found his feet as a filmmaker and made close friends. And he even got to know his future partner. Virtual reality, he says, isn’t a marketing trick or dystopian rabbit hole, but an integral part of 21st-century life. “In VR, I felt the most present I’ve ever felt,” he says. “I’ve found a family through this process.”
Virtual reality is the perfect partner for you
Virtual Reality: We Met is Hunting’s full-length debut. Hunting was an avid player of video games and joined VRChat during film school. He immediately fell in love with the positive energy radiating from its participants. “My documentary film brain lit up, seeing all of these people, learning their stories, and seeing their creativity,” he says.
Hunting, who was living in a tiny town about 40 miles away from London, met a hotdog, a space bear and an anime bodybuilder sporting a dragon tail. Hunting met VR comedians and salsa teachers, as well as fashion designers. VRChat was a community that mainly used full-body tracking technology, which attaches to your elbows and hips. This allows your avatar to move, act, and even dance to the music. 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.
VRChat immediately made Hunting feel comfortable and soon spent over 15 hours per week in 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.”
Hunting was introduced to Jenny by VRChat, a sign language teacher. Jenny appears in VRChat as an animated avatar wearing glowing pink hair and a bubblegum-pink wig. Jenny is the main protagonist. Virtual Reality: We Met. Her touching monologues tell of how VRChat supported her through mental illness crises, and helped to teach 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.”
Hunting and Jenny may be in the same space, but they both still wear their VR headsets for dance lessons, meeting up with old friends and exploring new places. “VR is still a core part of our lives,” Hunting says.
The VRChat app costs $10 a month, but there’s no buying and selling inside of the game. There are benefits and downsides to this: it helps keep the site free from ads, and focuses on people who really want it, but it prevents teachers of dance from earning a living for teaching classes.
It is in stark contrast with other future and present metaverse worlds. Roblox, an online game that lets you play as an avatar on the internet, has an in-game currency that can be used for purchasing items. 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. This is a lot of transactions. 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 has spent billions to ensure that it is at the center of this new revolution.
Hunting feels ambivalent about increasing virtual space finance, but he loves 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 admits to VRChat’s potential problems, such as the difficulty of returning 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.”
Continue reading: 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 recognizes the dangers associated with hyper-sexualized images of women bodies. But, he says, “my intention is to celebrate the positive aspects and to reflect upon the negatives and how we can improve on them.”
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.
Hunting was able to arrange Zoom logistics and Hunting took me along. The park is both magical and calming in its lush tropical beauty. “I love this world—it’s great therapy, I find: coming in, stroking dogs, playing fetch,” Hunting said. Hunting was setting up his invisible cameras. I looked at all the options before choosing a microphone cat that I thought would best suit my journalistic purposes.
Hunting appeared cartoonishly Wii-like, but was clearly an actual man. Although he didn’t have a tongue, he smiled and nodded to me. He also moved his hands freely. 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. Is there a VRChat notepad?
After the interview was over, we took a walk around the park towards the Shiba Inu virtual, and he looked up panting. Hunting found the stick, and then tossed it. Hunting picked up the stick and then ran to retrieve it from Hunting. The dog ran over, wagging its tail, and closed its eyes as Hunting patted its 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.
And, at the same, I was amazed by Hunting’s natural movement through VRChat. It allowed Hunting to access new aspects of himself, his 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. Hunting will make films that open up new worlds and times. “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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