15 March 2016 11:41:51 IST

A virtual reality ride

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona

Brands are working to move VRs away from just gaming and give a more immersive social experience

Ah, technology, you beauty! It has now made it possible for us to hobnob with our friends in dramatic virtual worlds. How, you ask? Well, vTime, a smartphone-based social virtual reality network that launched last November, and was so far available only on high-end headsets like Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR, has been launched for Google Cardboard as well. This should enable more people hop aboard an immersive social networking ride, as Cardboard is fairly affordable.

Which, indeed, seems to be the intention of Starship, vTime’s creator, as its CEO Martin Kenwright said, “Launching on Cardboard allows us to introduce millions more people to the possibilities that social VR presents.”

How it works

On vTime, up to four people can connect in any type of virtual environment — from mountains to beaches. All you need to do is download the Google Cardboard vTime app, which then offers a friends’ list for you to choose from. Or, if you don’t mind a virtual trip with strangers, does random matches with new acquaintances. And then away you can go, taking virtual selfies or conversing in a virtual environment.

At the start of the year, this column had said it would be the year of virtual reality, which relies on 360 degree videos that captures a scene from all angles. And going by the way VR has dominated every forum so far, the promise is more than being delivered.

For instance, take the way a minor sensation was created at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, when Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg turned up at the Samsung Galaxy S7 launch party, and announced the partnership between the social network company and the Korean giant’s Virtual Reality, using Gear VR headsets.

Beyond just gaming

Facebook, which has been working a lot on its Oculus Rift in the labs, is keen on moving virtual reality beyond gaming to deliver social VR experiences. The reason it partnered with Samsung’s Gear VR is along the same lines vTime launched for Google Cardboard — to get more people to experience it.

Gear VR is expensive. But with Samsung giving it away for free to those who pre-ordered their Galaxy S7, and the speculation that its cost will come down, the device is expected to take off pretty well.

Meanwhile, brands are also attempting to build connections through VR. At the recent ad:tech, a digital marketing summit in Gurgaon, Michael Chrisment, Global Head of Integrated Marketing, Nescafe, described how the brand was taking its consumers on a virtual reality experience, right into Brazilian coffee plantations by teaming with Google Cardboard.

Coffee and VR

How it works: Sitting in their homes, people can go on the ‘coffee ride’ by downloading Nescafe 360 degree app and slipping their mobile into a Nescafe branded Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer, which contains lenses that give a stereoscopic image. Turning your head takes you straight into the coffee fields. “We are inspiring real life stories and connections,” said Chrisment, describing how, by connecting consumers with the farmers and showing them how and where their coffee is produced, the company is providing a unique experience.

This is but the beginning. At the ongoing SXSW Interactive festival, fast-food chain McDonald’s partnered with HTC Vive virtual reality headset to show the future of fun. Attendees at the fest (that usually draws Silicon Valley’s brightest) could paint their own virtual reality Happy Meal box.

Over the course of the year, more virtual reality headsets are going to be launched — so be prepared to be flooded with some branded VR escapades.

Brace yourself

In other tech news, we thought it would be wise to warn you about the future — immediate future, that is. Best steel yourself for some crazy days ahead, as friends on your Facebook timeline will haunt you with strange faces.

Facebook has just bought Masquerade, an app that can transform one’s looks — and by that, we mean allow you to swap faces with animal portraits or cartoon like faces or other friends’ visages. This is FB’s answer to a Snapchat feature that is quite the rage among teens.

Remember, Facebook had made an abortive attempt to take over Snapchat in 2013, offering $3 billion. Let’s see if Masquerade can get the teens back to the big daddy social network. Or will it drive away the adults?