Will the future of virtual reality communications be dominated by Facebook or is there room for diversity in this emerging ecosystem?
Open source secure chat developers Matrix.org threw their fans for a loop today, surprising everyone with their latest bit of tech. Having taken part in launching the open platform Riot last September, allowing users to communicate securely across a variety of services, the Matrix crew decided to bring their skills to the virtual reality cyberspace.
The current layout of the virtual reality landscape has players like Facebook’s Oculus and Steam are dominating the field, creating their own silos. Google and Apple are working on their own projects and can be expected to act in a similar fashion.
While this may be good for each individual ecosystem, it creates what Matrix.org’s Technical co-founder Matthew Hodgson accurately terms as islands. Disconnected from one another, he says that they are becoming walled gardens. Even as the experience of using each specific product improves, we are less and less able to break through to communicate from one platform to the next.
So why is this important for virtual reality? Isn’t it just for games?
Hodgson (and I strongly agree) believes that the future of VR lies in its capacity as a communication platform. “The potential to collaborate within a virtual space has been the promise of the internet since day one,” he tells Geektime.
Explaining that Matrix’s original use case has been chat and secure communications, he points out that, “Matrix can share data of any kind and there is a lot more that we can do with it.“ So why not bring it to the next stage of communication in virtual reality? As he sees it, “VR is a blank canvas in terms of communication” and they have their work cut out for them.
What they have put together thus far is a technology that allows voice and video calling as well as video conferencing between every platform and device, ranging from the top of the line Oculus or Vive down to the lowest level Android phone. One of the biggest advances that they note is the development of VR for the web, letting viewers interact with VR content through their browser. In fact, Matrix.org has even opened up their platform to non-VR devices like regular phones and others.
This means that while one person calls in on their Rift, another is using their Samsung Gear from their mobile, somebody else can be at work video chatting with their webcam and microphone, while a fourth is calling in with VoIP from their phone as they are cooking dinner.
While this may be fun and games, Matrix is up to proving a more serious point. Will the future of communication in cyberspace be open or closed?
“It’s so early that it could go either way. It’s up to us in the global developer community on whether there will be an open alternative. For this we need a web that is capable of VR that we now have thanks to Mozilla, and we need the communication layer to link these applications together. If not, then they each become their own island and that would be terrible,” explains Hodgson, noting that “free communication requires an open fabric to link these virtual worlds together and we’re the only one providing it.”
By launching this new tech, are showing the community that their Matrix infrastructure can be used to build open communication for VR and in the future, possibly power VR directly through Matrix. The version that is out now is still a bit buggy, but it is for sure the start of something fascinating.
Virtual reality is still a bit of a Wild West in many respects, leaving room for pioneers to lay down stakes that the big players like Facebook hope to take for themselves. Hopefully by developing solid technologies that inspire increased openness, we can keep those lines of communication free, letting cyberspace continue to flourish beyond its confines.