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‘We Met in Virtual Reality’ Explores the Potential of the Metaverse


Published October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Hunting's documentary follows people who socialize using virtual avatars in the immersive world of VRChat. - COURTESY OF  WARNERMEDIA
  • Courtesy Of Warnermedia
  • Hunting's documentary follows people who socialize using virtual avatars in the immersive world of VRChat.

Virtual reality has been touted as the next big thing since the 1990s. About a year ago, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg renamed his company Meta and announced his plan to invite users of his social media platforms into a "metaverse" based on VR technology.

But since then, the metaverse has "had a rocky start," in the words of a recent New York Times story. When Zuckerberg posted a picture of his own virtual avatar, Facebook users mocked it as cartoonish.

To those of us who don't even own headsets, the concept of a metaverse may seem a little out there. Are humans really built to interact in virtual environments? Don't we spend enough time on Zoom already? For a closer look inside our potential future, I turned to We Met in Virtual Reality, a 2022 documentary from 23-year-old director Joe Hunting that was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and can be streamed on HBO Max.

The deal

The documentary takes place entirely inside VRChat, a series of interlocking virtual environments that people access using VR headsets or desktop computers. Within this digitally animated world, users manifest as avatars of their choice — anime characters, aliens, animals, even Kermit the Frog. They interact socially as they might in real life, using full-body tracking — sensors that map their real bodies onto their virtual ones — to perform activities such as dancing, sign language and holding hands.

Shot in 2020, the film follows several users as they find a refuge in VRChat from the isolation of pandemic lockdowns. Jenny, who teaches sign language on the platform, speaks about her real-life suicide attempt. Dust Bunny, who teaches belly dancing, discusses her romantic bond with Toaster, a user who "unmuted" himself just to communicate with her. A montage shows the pair frolicking in a virtual amusement park. DragonHeart and IsYourBoi, another couple who met in VRChat, stage an elaborate wedding.

Will you like it?

We Met in Virtual Reality is as immersive as VR itself. Rather than delivering an introduction to VRChat for newbies, Hunting sums up the nature of the platform in a single screen caption and tosses us into it. He shot the film via his own headset, using a "virtual camera" to create cinematic effects such as rack focus.

What we see may remind us of Saturday morning cartoons — stylized, brightly colored figures with exaggerated human features, dramatically flowing hair and (often) tails. By contrast, the low-key murmur of overlapping conversations feels distinctly adult, as if we're spying on a private cocktail party.

Some of the environments where users interact are as generic and ugly as a bad website. Others are beautifully designed to imitate natural settings, complete with soundscapes. No one would confuse this VR with reality, though: Grass blades rustle in eerie synchronicity, and the clouds don't move.

The film's overall effect is, in a word, trippy. Although avatars sometimes look at the camera and answer the director's questions, We Met in Virtual Reality often feels more like cinema verité, allowing us simply to observe.

And what we observe is, for the most part, sweet and moving — people discovering community, freedom of expression and even love in VR. (Director Hunting found romance with Jenny, who's at the center of the film, he told Time magazine.) Unlike most of the internet, VRChat appears (key word) to be free of political rants, thinly veiled advertisements or users who are there to leer at the many scantily clad female-presenting avatars.

As depicted here, the platform carries on the utopian mission of many early online communities: It's a place where you feel safe being your true self. User Toaster puts it best: "You can, in a way, start over [in VR]. Nobody cares who you are [in real life]; nobody cares who you were; they just care how you treat them. That's now you."

That sense of possibility is powerful — and empowering. Still, as I watched, I couldn't help asking myself pesky questions: What happens when the couples who fell in love on VRChat meet in real life? Do they always successfully adjust? Does it take a toll on people's physical bodies to do so much of their socializing in a virtual world?

Hunting doesn't address those issues. In a review on Inverse, Willa Rowe notes known problems with VRChat that the film also doesn't broach, such as "racism and other problematic behavior" and the looming specter of commercialization.

Because it offers so little context for what we're seeing, We Met in Virtual Reality is best viewed as one slice of virtual life, crafted by someone who's clearly in love with the platform. While it didn't make me any more eager to enter Zuckerberg's metaverse, it did leave me with more hope for our virtual future.

If you like this, try...

eXistenZ (1999; Pluto TV, rentable): The Matrix got all the hype, but David Cronenberg was in on the early VR fascination with this trippy, underrated film about a game designer trying to fight her way out of her own creation.

Belle (2021; HBO Max, rentable): A shy high schooler becomes a star in a virtual world in Mamoru Hosoda's acclaimed animation.

"Q: Into the Storm" (six episodes, 2021; HBO Max): Cullen Hoback's documentary series about the roots of QAnon is a deep dive into the dynamics of online communities as immersive as any VR world.