In a world where social distancing is becoming the norm, Alcove gives you the ability to connect with your family and friends without ever leaving the house. There are games and entertainment for all of your virtual house guests, but, as this is in VR, in Alcove you can take your guests scuba diving, on a bus tour of Paris or even a hot air balloon safari. It’s been available on Oculus Go in beta since January 2019, and it’s now available on Oculus Quest.
We spoke with Alcove Creator and Producer and AARP Innovation Labs Innovation Catalyst Cezara Windrem to learn more.
How did you get your start in the tech industry?
Cezara Windrem: I’ve always been passionate about creating valuable things for the world, building and scaling products that enhance people’s lives. My professional background has always been at the intersection of media and technology. I got my first computer when I was seven and dabbled with programming on and off throughout my younger years. I started my career in traditional media during college, made the transition to digital in the mid-2000s, and then a couple years ago to immersive media and virtual reality.
I became fascinated by this new medium and saw the opportunity of what it could bring to humankind. As someone who moved halfway across the world from my family in my mid-20s, I experienced first-hand the need to connect with loved ones through technology—and the challenges that come with that. Virtual reality is so much more than anything else we’ve had in the past.
Through its ability to connect people, places, and things in ways never seen before, immersive media can bridge physical distances and empower people to connect in new ways. VR is only rivaled by reality itself, yet it solves for reality’s limitations related to costs, time, or mobility constraints.
What’s the mission of AARP Innovation Labs? How did Alcove grow out of that work?
CW: At AARP Innovation Labs, our mission is to empower people to choose how we live as we age through innovation. We accelerate the innovation ecosystem by working with startups, accelerators, and the innovation community. Alcove was born out of our partnership with portofolio startup Rendever, and out of our extensive research over the years around virtual reality, its potential to bring people together and connect in unique ways that defy distance and physical barriers.
We created Alcove to be “your family corner in VR”—that calm place to be in and go back to when you’re not playing big games, when you want to just hang out on your own or with your loved ones. Alcove is a destination and a portal to new worlds. It’s a safe space in VR where you can bring your friends and family, hang out, and have fun together.
When you want to make new friends, you can go into one of the many social VR apps. But what if you want to hang out with your dear ones, in a more realistic, more grownup environment? That is where we saw a gap, and an opportunity. Alcove aims to be something different—that perfect space to hang out and play with your family and friends. A family-friendly environment where everyone feels comfortable, no matter their age. Those dear people in your life for whom VR can open whole new worlds and opportunities to connect.
Tell us more about the Alcove Playground. What kind of response have you seen from developers building for the platform?
CW: From day one, we envisioned Alcove as a complete platform of content and experiences for families, so we put a lot of focus on interactivity and scalability. We’re a non-profit, so we couldn’t have done it alone. We engaged the ecosystem of creators and developers around the world, and Rendever built the Alcove Playground to activate this vision. The Playground is a developer ecosystem that makes it easy to build or integrate virtual reality experiences directly into Alcove.
So, uniquely built as a platform of curated content, Alcove is not just one experience, but a complete collection of experiences centered around themes that matter to people across all ages: family, casual games and entertainment, health and wellness, and virtual travel.
So far, we worked with many amazing creators and developers, and Alcove today includes immersive experiences from over a dozen of them including AARP, Blend Media, the Dolphin Swim Club, EcoVR, GlimpsIE, Georgieff Studio, Head Start Design JumbliVR, Rendever, Paracosma, Parkline Interactive, Patched Reality, Sygic Travel, VArtisans, Virtuleap, and this list is continuing to grow.
We encourage developers to learn more about the Alcove Playground and connect with us at alcovevr.com/playground.
Why do you think VR lends itself well to multi-generational experiences?
CW: VR is great at simulating “presence” and creating memories, hence its growing applicability across major industries including workplace training, education, and of course, gaming. Its power of immersion is what can make people feel like “they’re really there.” But VR is just the technology, or the medium. What matters most is what you put in it, what kind of content, and how that content resonates with users. And then, of course, adding in all the multiplayer elements and features that encourage ease of use.
In Alcove for example, we enabled hand tracking as an alternative to operating the controllers to interact with the environment, and enabled multiplayer for joint 360° experiences: You can enter 360° experiences together with your family and friends while maintaining full voice communication with each other. And my personal favorite: We built in a “Lead / Follow” feature that you can engage for yourself or your guests. For example, think of your cousin who’s never been in VR before. With Alcove, all she needs to do is put on her headset, and from there you can set her in Follow mode, and give her not only a full tour of the house without her having to touch one button, but you also can pop in and out of a variety of experiences together, like a virtual trip around the world.
How would you describe Alcove to someone new to VR?
CW: Think of Alcove as a magical home—that invites discovery and allows you to get transported to new worlds. A home where the art comes to life, the rooms are no regular living spaces, but comfortable gateways for further discovery, and the objects in them that surround you are magical portals to new worlds. You can customize the frames on the walls and the TV with your own media, pictures, and videos—standard and even 360° videos—and then hop into them!
And then there are the rooms themselves—a Travel room, where you can engage with the objects that come to life at a simple touch, and go travel the world to destinations on every continent. Just imagine diving in the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, or swimming with dolphins in the Pacific Ocean, touring the beautiful cities of Europe, flying over the Swiss Alps, or a Kenyan safari in a hot air balloon, or taking a road trip of the US—coast to coast, in your dream convertible car!
From the balcony, you can change your view with just one click. You can change the season from winter to summer, from snowy mountains to a meadow with crickets and butterflies—just like in the Amazon Prime show Upload—but rather than waiting until an idyllic afterlife, you can actually do it right now!
On the porch, or the Health and Wellness room, you can work out, engage in therapeutic activities, mindfulness and meditation exercises, play cognitive games, or simply relax watching the butterflies.
And in the living room, you can hang out, watch TV, attend chamber music concerts, play family games like Chess and Checkers, and other fun casual games.
What’s next? Any exciting updates in the works?
CW: We plan to keep growing Alcove with more and more content and experiences for our users and their families.
In doing so, we’re also taking this opportunity to inspire VR developers to create more family-friendly virtual reality that can be relevant for all. For example, just last month we wrapped up a six-month VR design challenge in collaboration with Games for Change. In addition to a monetary grand prize, select finalists and honorees get the opportunity to be part of Alcove. So, very soon, wonderful experiences like Dear Mom by Awu Chen and AmaVR Team, Visitations by David Lobster, and Labyrinth Lunacy by Pichya will be available in Alcove for you to explore.
But we’re certainly not stopping there. We encourage the community to connect with us and let us know what else they’d love to do in Alcove, and we’ll gladly add to our growing wish list.
How do you think VR and AR will continue to change the ways families interact in the future?
CW: VR and AR can be so much more than just traditional video gaming—they can open new opportunities to people around the world to connect and be present with each other in new ways, to defy distance and physical barriers.
XR can bring human connection to whole new levels—through its power to connect people with each other and the world in immersive ways, which may have been impossible in the past through traditional mediums. This is particularly relevant today, as our society battles the pandemic, social distancing separates us physically from our loved ones, and more and more adults experience social isolation and loneliness because of it.
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our readers?
CW: Bring your friends and family, especially those who might have never tried VR, and explore virtual reality with them from the comfort of Alcove!