The majority of modern virtual reality experiences are defined by the user's interactions within the virtual space. You see a coffee cup in Job Simulator VR – you throw it. You see a rock-face in The Climb - you start precariously grabbing onto hand-holds and clinging on for dear life. In its current state at least, VR is almost exclusively focused on player agency with the environment merely a back-drop for anarchic fun.
Hello VR's MetaWorld – a vast-scale social experience for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR – bucks this trend and instead calls for calm, relaxation and instils an odd sense of zen in its quietly bizarre virtual forest.
In essence, MetaWorld creates a patch of green woodland where physics-based objects can be grabbed and toyed with like any other VR game. The trick however comes from its persistent-world mechanics, which ensures that a stick tossed with reckless abandon remains in the place it landed upon your return.
These individual 'meta-worlds' - termed "volumes" – are also populated by "cognitive wildlife" whose behaviours are controlled by IBM Watson AI technology and enabled by SpatialOS – a distributed operating system from the UK-based tech company, Improbable.
Using the SpatialOS tech, MetaWorld is capable of simulating almost 10,000 square miles of rural virtual space, with pockets of land reserved for you, and (unless you fancy a bit of alone time via private mode) your friends and the wider community. Hello VR's founder and CEO, Dedric Reid, told IBTimes UK that he sees MetaWorld as a "new form of social VR MMO", and that he dreams of seeing communities with varied personalities interact with and grow within each area.
While each volume will be limited to 30 people, Reid explained that the initial build of the game will include the option to travel between areas by foot (or a few teleport taps on a controller). The studio has further plans for vehicle transportation as well, either by means of a virtual car or aircraft.
In its current, very early state, the work-in-progress build IBTimes UK stepped foot in was lacking several of these key features, but it still perfectly encapsulated the developer's attempts to get away from the "utter mayhem and destruction" that has flooded the VR market.
From casually sitting by a campfire for a quick chat, to engaging in a fully-realised game of chess against a backdrop of twittering birds in the trees – Hello VR's creation is remarkably serene, with Reid's countryside residence in San Francisco's Bay Area a clear influence on MetaWorld's soothing plains.
Hello VR acknowledged that there is stiff competition when vying for the social VR crown, with the activity-heavy AltSpace VR or the mobile-focused vTime among those leading the pack. Yet the quaint "safe environments" of MetaWorld do stand out from the crowd, offering a naturalistic aura that belies the cartoon-ish designs of its in-world avatars and the accompanying gloved, Mickey Mouse-like hands.
With fishing, farming, archery, hot-air balloon flights, road trips and meditation retreats all promised for the Pioneer Edition later this year, high-end virtual reality headset owners longing for a peaceful getaway with friends may want to keep an eye out for MetaWorld's blissful brand of social VR.
"It's always on, it's living, breathing, it's happening when we're not there and we hope it's something that people will want to come back to again and again," Reid told me while we sat around the fire munching on a few wild mushrooms.
I miss it already.
MetaWorld Pioneer Edition will be available for HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. IBTimes UK was told that the final release currently has a tentative mid-2017 launch window.