We decided back in October: no traveling for Christmas this year. It was a tough call — Christmas has always been a big deal in my family, and due to distance I hadn’t seen my parents, my sister, or her teenage kids since the previous winter. However, my parents are in their 70s and cautious by nature. Traveling during a pandemic just wasn’t worth the risk.
That’s when the idea came to me. How about a virtual reality (VR) Christmas? My favorite Christmas gift the year before had been an Oculus Quest — an affordable standalone VR headset — which had given me so much enjoyment that I had just upgraded to the Quest 2. I’d gifted my first Quest to my boyfriend, and we’d been exploring the ways to use the headsets to connect — from cheering one another on in virtual mini golf, to watching 3D movies next to each other’s avatar, to flying around a virtual art museum. These experiences felt so real that I often forgot we hadn’t been physically together.
My parents came on board first, ordering their Quest 2 right away. My sister didn’t want another source of electronic distraction around after the holidays, but she found a company that would rent them a couple of headsets for Christmas week. It’s been surprisingly easy getting my not-so-tech-savvy parents up and running: after a few lessons with me teaching how to use the controllers, my dad has been able to make avatars and explore apps on his own, and we’re working together to coach my mom. Already we’ve had a great time connecting in virtual environments and playing a few games.
As the veteran VR user, I’ve been planning the celebrations: as my sister puts it, it’s like I’m the one hosting Christmas this year. (She’s helping, of course — I’m pretty sure I’ve got a package of her homemade Christmas cookies coming my way!) Here are the apps we’ll be using to make the season special.
- Altspace VR: This is where we’ll meet for our big Christmas gathering. While most social apps have a limit of 4 people who can connect at once, Altspace allows for 30+ to gather. Better yet, folks without a headset can join via computer. A fellow user taught me how to create a “world” of my own — in my case, a glass house with a hot tub, Christmas tree, playable piano, and giant YouTube screen, which I’ve been using to play mood music. I’ve also been exploring other users’ “worlds”: winter wonderlands, Asian temples, caves, taverns, and more. After we socialize at my glass house, I’ll take folks on a “worlds tour,” generating portals that we can use to travel together from virtual place to place. Later, those who are interested can play “Holograms against Reality” (a VR version of “Cards Against Humanity”) and pelt each other with virtual snowballs.
- Alcove: Alcove was created for the purpose of connecting with family, particularly for older folks. Unlike Altspace (which works best if at least one person learns how to make a world or host an event), it’s designed to be very easy to use. Veteran users can even “lead” newbies around the space, meaning that my parents won’t even have to navigate the space on their own. My favorite feature is the ability to upload one’s own photos and videos, including those in 360 and 3D format. Family photos adorn the walls of my virtual Alcove house, and I’ve preloaded all sorts of videos on the virtual TV: GoPro footage from my snorkel trips and biking explorations, home videos from when my sister and I were little, even 3D snippets of favorite spots around my home island of Maui. There are also virtual checkers and chess boards for the more cerebral folks, and “trips” we can take together around the world (thanks to 360 videos that Alcove provides). The app limits groups to four people or fewer, so we’ll take turns in this space — not a big deal since VR newbies are usually better off with shorter sessions and plenty of breaks.
- vTime XR: One of our family traditions is the card game Vertellis, which facilitates reflection about the past year. vTime provides beautiful scenery in which to sit, talk, and play this game. Four people can meet at time in locales such as a river in Yosemite, a tropical beach, and a rooftop café in Paris at sunset. vTime is set up to promote conversation: there’s no moving around as in Altspace or Alcove, but the avatars and locations are beautifully detailed. As a bonus, I’ll be able to take family members inside my own uploaded 360 photos.
- Bigscreen Beta: I’ve always been a fan of 3D movies. Bigscreen Beta brings this experience to anyone with a headset, with the ability to watch in groups of up to 4 (more if the host is connected to a gaming PC). If we find a movie we all like among Bigscreen’s rentals, we can all rent and watch it together. If not, my boyfriend has plenty to choose from on his desktop PC, which he can project into the app and use to stream a movie to the rest of us.
- Multiplayer Games: The first four apps are all free — perfect for my sister, who will be renting her headsets. For those of us willing to pay, we’ll also have some informal multiplayer gaming time. My top family-friendly recommendations: Walkabout Mini Golf, Eleven Table Tennis, Premium Bowling, and Cook-Out, a cooperative cooking game with a snowy holiday theme.
Granted, VR does have its limitations. We’re planning to have both Christmas dinner and our present exchange via Zoom, since we’ll be interacting with the real world and will want to include everyone at once. Still, I’m excited about the possibilities that VR offers to connect safely over the holidays.
Disclaimer: The information in this article represents my own opinion as a user. I am not affiliated with any of the above companies and have not received any compensation to recommend their services. My intention is to inspire families to consider alternatives to traveling over the holidays and to provide resources for them to create meaningful experiences with VR.