05/31/2016 06:13 pm ET Updated May 31, 2017

Why Co-Experience Is the Ultimate Killer App for Virtual Reality

What happens when 12 million people are provided with an almost unlimited variety of immersive virtual environments where they can explore, create, and learn with their friends? We have been running this experiment monthly at ROBLOX for over ten years, and it has led us to a thesis. We believe the future of 3D immersive environments (and VR) is much bigger than the gaming space. Immersive 3D environments will ultimately power social networks that connect billions of users. For decades, science fiction authors have conjured visions of the Metaverse -- a virtual world where people share experiences together under the guise of a photo-realistic simulation. This is the ultimate promise of VR, and it is the vision that has powered VR all the way from Snow Crash to JPL to The Matrix to today's VR excitement. The future of VR is social.

People have been turning to technology for thousands of years to help communicate and share stories. Human communication has seen steady acceleration, stemming all the way from drums and smoke signals, to the modern evolution of telegraph, telephone, internet video calls, and ultimately VR telepresence. Similarly, people have been figuring out ways to spread stories beyond the campfire ever since we inked the first cave paintings approximately 40,000 years ago. A progression of increasingly high-fidelity storytelling technology has brought us oil paintings, books, movies, TV, and 3D movies.

Virtual reality will provide an enormous opportunity for companies in the communications and storytelling segments. Wherever we see images or videos today, we will ultimately see VR imagery and video in the future. Industries will expand to support new cameras, projectors, VR viewing technology, and distribution. There will ultimately be a VR YouTube, a VR Twitch, and, when the time is right, VR movies from Disney, Time Warner, Netflix, Amazon, and Comcast. In the communications segment, we will see bandwidth expand to support VR telepresence communication that goes beyond our Skype calls of today.

However, unlike communications and storytelling, it has only recently become possible to accelerate human co-experience with technology. The implications are large, because humans primarily form bonds through "doing things together" (co-experience). A networked virtual environment is required to support co-experience, and these have only been available in the last twenty years with the advent of social networks and multiplayer games.

Social networks provide a degree of co-experience, but they do it primarily through asynchronous text and the sharing of content. Even this somewhat limited level of co-experience is powerful, as social network companies today, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Tencent, have market capitalizations well in excess of communications and storytelling companies. Compare Facebook's market capitalization at $334 billion with Disney's $164 billion and Comcast's $155 billion, and it becomes clear that social is currently the dominating category.

Games, on the other hand, provide a level of immersion beyond that of social networks, but they do not provide an "always on" social graph that friends can use from anywhere in the world. In addition, the content and environments provided by games is typically just that - a game. We don't find many games that support "let's play tag" or "let's sit in the audience of a fashion show."

I would like to introduce a new category that I believe will ultimately be larger than gaming, and that is the "Co-Experience" category. Mojang (Minecraft), Second Life, and ROBLOX have typically been categorized with games, but unlike traditional game businesses, these companies provide human co-experience based on user generated content (UGC). They provide a long tail of experiences that satisfy a wide range of social activities. On these platforms, one can participate with friends in the Hunger Games, hang out at a disco, or survive a tornado together. More and more, companies in this co-experience space will provide social graphs to play with friends across phones, tablets, computers, consoles and VR.

Which brings us back to the experiment we have been running at ROBLOX. Over 300,000 developers create millions of 3D experiences every year on our platform. More and more, we are finding the experiences they create go beyond games. Some of the experiences are educational, such as Bird Simulator. Some of the experiences are non-competitive and social games we find in the real world, such as Freeze Tag, Murder Mystery, or Hide and Seek. And we find a wide range of role playing, whether it be High School, a Prison Simulator, or the chance to be a Fashion Model. Our 12 million monthly players are coming back not just to play games, but to be with their friends. Our players enjoy ROBLOX because it gives them the chance to do things together, and doing things together is ultimately social.

As we expand into VR, we see two general classes of growth ahead. In the communications and storytelling space, there will be huge dollars and much evolutionary development as the current image and video infrastructure makes a move towards VR. But it is the Co-Experience space where we expect to ultimately see more radical, disruptive developments. Ultimately all social networks will be powered by VR and support human Co-Experience. The future of VR is social, and co-experience will be the ultimate "killer app" for VR.