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Dive into VRChat, the turbulent social network in virtual reality

A giant banana decked out in sunglasses. This is the reflection that the mirror installed in my pretty house reminds me of, with welcoming armchairs, in soothing light. I would stay there, enjoying this cozy haven in my banana peel. But I'm here to meet people, we're going to have to go out.

All this takes place in VRChat: a social platform in virtual reality. Put on a virtual reality (VR) headset, launch the program and you are projected in three dimensions in a virtual universe with endless possibilities. The promise : “Interact with people from around the world. “

A kind of immersive social network, which makes people chat on YouTube, and celebrates its third birthday on Saturday 1st February. With a threat in the background: the imminent arrival of Facebook on its flowerbeds – the social network plans to launch, during the year, a first version of Horizons, its own social network in VR.

Comfort in virtual reality

Anyone who has ever put on an RV helmet knows the feeling of teleportation that this technology provides. This is even more true when accompanied by the controllers that allow you to materialize your own hands – which is offered by the most recent helmet models.

In VR Chat, mine are yellow and respond to each of my movements. It's time to experience “social” VR and go out to meet other occupants of the social network. I rush into a sort of bluish magic portal.

The comfortable house that each VRChat user has, and its bluish portal … VRChat screenshot
... which takes us into a snowy world.
… which takes us into a snowy world. VRChat screenshot

I land in a snowy world, in the center of which sits what could resemble the house of unstructured Santa Claus. I am not alone. A robot and two anthropomorphic wolves chat a little further in English. Shy, I watch them, hidden behind a piece of wood – I don't want them to realize that a giant banana is spying on them. One of the wolves is, in fact, a wolf, according to his vocal timbre. She offers the robot to take him in her arms. ” To cheer you up “, she says. The robot accepts, sheepishly, the sad voice.

VRChat is a place of confessions. Of it, I know nothing. Many others, however, have become public. The youtubeur Symor collects them during his virtual meetings and publishes them on the video platform (with the agreement of the main concerned). You can see a bird with gigantic legs indulging in its homeless past. Or an avatar of Kermit the frog telling of the harassment he experiences at school, with a boyish voice – that of the “real” person behind the avatar, who speaks into his microphone.

Truce of melancholy, direction the Black Cat, a famous bar of VRChat. In the great hall, a dozen people quietly discuss the worlds they would like to make, like a Japanese temple. Here, thanks to some software, everyone can make their own universe, their own avatars or objects, provided they spend a lot of time on it.

Suddenly, a little red being comes straight out of the video game Sonic, who rushes into the heap, zigzags between avatars and sows discord, screaming in a shrill voice. “This one is far from puberty”, disapproves of one of the characters. The kid grabs a microphone, sings and, in the absence of reaction, changes his avatar, turns into a giant bottle, then into a hero of the cartoon Griffins and invective of the others, stoic. He turns to me. “Hey banana, you look like a giant penis!” “, before decamping. “The kids here are tiring …”, sighs one of the adults.

Karaoke or werewolf?

Still: I change my avatar. And transforms me into a little girl with rabbit ears, frilly dress and light hair. It's time to have a little fun.

Among the avatars offered to all users, that of this little girl with rabbit ears. Thanks to the controllers that the player holds in his hands, his avatar reacts to each of his movements.
Among the avatars offered to all users, that of this little girl with rabbit ears. Thanks to the controllers that the player holds in his hands, his avatar reacts to each of his movements. VRChat screenshot

Certain VRChat worlds lend themselves more than others to fun: a murder party, a life-size game of the werewolf, a (empty) nightclub … I opt for karaoke. Eight avatars bellow indeterminate notes in a warm setting. I end up recognizing My way, thanks to a great guy who comes out pretty much with his baritone voice. A woman with a thin voice accompanies him correctly, the others become discouraged and heckled. A “Shut up, bitch!” ” fuse (in English – most of the quotes in this article have been translated).

A reminder that despite its cartoon appearances VRChat is not always the country of Care Bears, even if the universe is much cleaner than that of its ancestor Second Life. To protect themselves, in particular from harassment, each user can block another, which then no longer appears in their field of vision or hearing.

But, unlike Facebook and other less virtual social networks, VRChat “Does not have tens of thousands of moderators” to enforce the rules of the platform, explains to World its co-founder Graham Gaylor: “We are a 30 person company, so we have to rely on our community, our built-in moderation tools and a small team of employees. “ This while conversations take place in VRChat in real time, in hundreds of different worlds.

However, the number of users remains modest. “We have between 8,000 and 12,000 people permanently connected”says Graham Gaylor. Incomparable with highly successful video games (Counter Strike GO brings together hundreds of thousands of players at any time), but very honorable for an application designed for virtual reality – even if 60% of users are on VRChat with the computer version, without VR headset, this material is still expensive.

“It's a second life”

Among these thousands of “VRChatiens”, how many French speakers? So far, I've only heard English, and a little Russian, in a creepy building. It’s out of VR that I finally find my compatriots. Several hundred of them are gathered on Discord VRChat France, a discussion platform where they exchange photos of their best moments in VRChat, organize events there, show their creations.

Jarod Egea, the founder of the Discord VRChat France community, is equipped with sensors on the feet and pelvis, which allow his avatar to reproduce the movements of all its members.
Jarod Egea, the founder of the Discord VRChat France community, is equipped with sensors on the feet and pelvis, which allow his avatar to reproduce the movements of all its members. VRChat screenshot

I meet Jarod Egea, the creator of the community, 21 years old. Based in Laval (Mayenne), he works in the restaurant industry and connects to VRChat three or four times a week for several hours.

“I go there to have fun, but especially to meet people. And I go back there all the time, because I have friends on it. There is not really a goal when we arrive on VRChat, the only goal, it is us who fix it, we do what we want. It's great, it's a second life. “

To live the experience to the full, he equipped himself with the “Full body tracking” : sensors that you plug into your feet and into your pelvis, which allow you to model all your movements in the game. He demonstrated this to me, in the skin of a ridiculous muscular giant avatar, capable of reproducing in real time all the positions he performs, alone in his living room.

We understand that it is with this type of equipment that some people lend themselves to sexual games on HRV, in private worlds in general. “Some take the full body tracking just for that ! “, laughs Jarod Egea. More generally, “On VRChat, we feel more free, because we are not judged on the physical and we can express ourselves more freely. And for those who have trouble socializing, it can help ”.

An island dedicated to fireworks.
An island dedicated to fireworks. VRChat screenshot

QuarT0niX can testify to this. This 20 year old Belgian, computer graphics student, was previously “The kind of very quiet person who didn't have many friends”, he says.

“On VRChat, I dared to socialize, to show my true personality. At first I was very shy, but now I don't hesitate to be myself and make the gallery laugh. “

For him, the virtual meetings then materialized: “I met a nice little group of Belgian friends. Basically, I never went out very much, and it is thanks to these people that I got a taste for going out. “. Most of his evenings are devoted to VRChat. “In two years, I have played 2,186 hours”, he specifies.

And going back to reality sometimes has a bitter taste. “Whenever I leave VRChat, I say to myself:” Well, it's gone, real life … “”sighs Jarod Egea. “When we take off the helmet, we think we had a great evening. But there is a void. The impression that it stopped suddenly. “

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