This new platform lets you party with friends in virtual worlds
Written by Will Gleason | Editor, Time Out New York
"Nowhere" is like hanging with friends at a bar except you're a disembodied floating pod.
It’s 8pm on a Thursday and I’m standing in the middle of nowhere.
Well, not so much "nowhere" as nowhere, a new virtual events platform that’s set to launch to the public on a wider level next week. And not so much "standing" as "bopping around with my disembodied head projected onto a floating orb, flying over the Manhattan skyline." As wild and weird as the experience is (and it’s just as weird as it sounds), it’s also the closest I’ve come to feeling like I was at a party with strangers in over a year.
Over the course of Our Pandemic Year, we’ve seen the creation of a number of new virtual platforms and services that, more or less, try to replicate the experience of in-person social experiences. Nowhere, which was created by the team behind The Windmill Factory, does this by projecting a video of your face on an orb that you move through virtual worlds to chat with others. Just like in the real world, you don’t see your own face as you move through the rooms. Also, spatial audio lets you overhear conversations as you move around.
“It’s a beautiful place online to hang out with your friends,” is the sentence that the platform’s CEO Jon Morris provides when I ask him for a succinct descriptor. "Essentially, what we're aiming to create is a presence engine. Something that mimics presence as much as possible and allows you to gather with your friends and to have a multiplicity of conversations within beautiful spaces that feel more natural."
Indeed, there are many aspects of moving through nowhere that mimic the real-life experience of being at a party or event. You can unexpectedly bump into people you recognize. You can accidentally interrupt a conversation. You can even jump up and down. (You need a space bar assist for that last one.)
Morris elaborates that the overall goal of the platform is to create an infinite social plane of various environments that lets you pop in at any time to discover a live performance, watch a movie with friends or gather with co-workers for a happy hour. It’s like a form of video chat gaming with a social element as well.
In addition to the timely motivation of wanting to create virtual gathering places, nowhere was also developed with the hope to create and foster a healthier public space online.
"We were already very deep into researching how to create healthy public online spaces when the pandemic hit and everything stopped," says nowhere's COO Ana Constantino. "Soon, we were asking: Where’s the bar online? Where do people just go to hang out and space isn’t necessarily structured as a workspace?"
"We found that there were so many VR Chat, Second Life kind of places with these avatar-based worlds and everyone was going on these two-dimensional meeting video platforms like Zoom, but we were really curious why these two things hadn’t been combined," adds Maxx Berkowitz, nowhere's Chief Product Officer. "We didn’t see platforms out there that really brought together the best of both of these worlds."
That level of face-to-face interaction also had the added benefit of creating a healthier online space through the inherent accountability of people’s actual visual presence. Hosts can use nowhere to create private gatherings in safer, more controlled settings. Past examples of events that have already been held on the platform include open mic nights, live talks and panels, happy hours and meet-and-greets for larger, off-platform events.
"Tiny Desk and globalFEST hosted the backstage for their livestreams in here," says Morris. "So all the artists that were performing and going out to YouTube Live, would then all gather back here and hang out for the first time. It was kind of like a green room for their festival, which was super cool."
You may not have much of a need for a digital green room in your personal life, but one area the platform is hoping to move into in the near future that you probably will: private birthday parties.
"Right now, for big events, people can get in touch with us through the website," says Berkowitz. "We’re currently taking requests and we’re going to open it up as much as we can. Soon, we’re planning to roll out so people will be able to host private birthday parties here."
Current virtual "spaces" that exist in nowhere include a rooftop that floats over NYC, a cloud world and a verdant forest world players can move through. In the future, the platform's developers want to open up the platform so that other artists and creators will be able to create and share spaces for players and businesses to take advantage of.
For now, if you’re interested in checking out nowhere for yourself, your best bet is to attend the nowhere Festival next week from March 11–13. Tied to the anniversary of WHO’s declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, the festival will look back on the last 12 months and celebrate the many artistic innovations of 2020 through live talks from NPR journalists and performances by comedian Chris Geithard, House of Yes, singer-songwriter Andrew McMahon and more. (Time Out will be hosting a panel as well!) Tickets are available here for $20.20 with proceeds benefiting Helping Hearts NYC.
"We wanted to open up a festival to invite in all kinds of different projects and highlight as many silver linings to the last year as possible, but also to just mark the time passing of this significant period," says Morris. "It's going to be a three-day festival showcasing a lot of amazing projects that people have made over the last year. People can come in, they can pop into different worlds, see a talk and then come into the social spaces to interact with one another."