On May 19, Julie Kagawa, bestselling author of the Iron Fey series and the Talon Saga for Harlequin Teen, became the first author to hold a virtual reading using the AltspaceVR platform. “It was just really cool,” Kagawa said. “I’m a gamer and I love the geeky, techy stuff. This was my first experience in VR and I was excited to try it.”
Kagawa’s avatar appeared in a virtual-reality Dragon Island setting appropriate to the theme of her Talon books. She was able to show the trailer for Soldier (the third book in the Talon series), do a reading, and participate in a Q&A session, all virtually. “When you had the headset on, you felt like you were in there,” she said. “You could turn your head and look around. You could hear the water and the wind.”
Fans could participate in three ways: by using the app and a virtual reality headset from Samsung, Facebook, or HTC for a fully immersive 3D experience; by using the app without the headset for an interactive-but-not-immersive 2D experience on a PC or Mac screen; or by watching a live stream on YouTube for a passive experience.
About 30 people used the AltspaceVR app to participate, with another 50 to 100 watching on YouTube Live, according to Eric Romo, CEO of AltspaceVR. While he did not have a breakdown of how many fans were in 3D versus 2D, the platform’s typical breakdown for an event is 75% with and 25% without the headset.
“Our product is about connecting people,” Romo said. “The things that work best in AltspaceVR are things that are very compelling in person but where the online analog is not very compelling at all.” An author reading is a good example, he said. “The fans at a reading feel very connected with the author. They won’t forget it and it deepens their connection. But the online version is so not the same thing.” In VR, on the other hand, “the fans get to feel as if they’re in the same room as Julie Kagawa, and that emotional connection is very powerful.”
He added that the economics are appealing to publishers and authors, who can forge a link with a similar or greater number of their readers than on a live tour, without leaving their living room.
Rough industry estimates suggest that the total number of VR headset owners in the U.S. is only in the low hundreds of thousands, with Facebook’s and HTC’s versions just shipping two months ago and Samsung’s in November 2015. But Romo expects the market potential to rise quickly, especially as new technologies, such as Google’s Daydream – which will transform an Android smartphone into a VR headset – make VR more accessible to all.
Fantasy writer R.A. Salvatore was the second author to hold a reading using AltspaceVR, on May 23. His took the form of a fireside chat in a medieval tavern. “At the end, he had a sword fight with his fans,” Romo said. “You’re not going to do that in a bookstore.”