(upbeat music) - There's no really true way to actually experience this fully unless you strap on a headset and get in.
(upbeat music) (bright music) - My name is Josef and I love to go out dancing here in New York.
(bright music) I'm definitely a night owl and going to raves and clubs is where I feel most free.
(bright music) I'm always looking for new places to frequent and that's how I discovered a new dance scene, except this one is in VR.
(bright music) Welcome to the underground dance scene in virtual reality.
(bright music) VR grew from a science fiction novelty to possibly the future of human interaction and now many industries have their sites on the metaverse, a digital universe where everyone navigates life as an avatar, but this dance scene isn't like the metaverse that you hear about on the news, it's underground and not associated with any big companies.
(upbeat music) Using the platform VRChat, users can create their own worlds and even their own avatars, and together, these creatives invented a dance scene, complete with clubs, scheduled events, and even live performances.
I originally set out to find out how clubbing in virtual reality compares to real life but what I discovered was a world that goes beyond imagination and a tight-knit community where you can truly be whoever you want to be.
(avatars chatting) I knew that I had to experience this club scene firsthand, the problem is, I'm a newbie when it comes to VR.
Luckily, when poking around Twitter, I met Electro, a VRChat creator and DJ who gave me a crash course on VR and introduced me to other cool people in this scene.
The first thing that I had to do was rent a PC and a headset.
You can technically play with just the VRChat app on any Windows computer but I wanted the full, immersive experience.
I also took it one step further and found an artist named Autuna to create an avatar based on me and my clothes.
I met up with Autuna in VR so that I could purchase the avatar from them.
Nice, thank you so much.
- Yeah, no problem, I hope you like it.
- Now I'm ready to hit the clubs with Electro, I'll admit, my movements felt awkward at first and I felt a new sense of shyness that I don't usually feel in real life.
- I feel like it takes a long time to get used to this.
- A bit.
But after loosening up, the fun began.
The first person Electro introduced me to was Ru, a hospice nurse who moonlights as one of VRChat's most prolific DJs.
(upbeat music) - [Ru] When I first came into VR, my story is, I had a fast growing tumor in my ear, I was out of work for eight weeks and I said, "Let me try this VR thing, why not?"
- [Josef] Ru is a trans woman and said that she found safety and acceptance in VR.
- This is maybe a year into my transition and I was very alone, the people around me where I live, kind of abandoned me in my life and I found this online family when I got into VR.
I never did this kind of thing or would've seen myself doing any of these things.
By any stretch of the imagination, I was just a nurse in Ohio, that's it.
Now I've got this big, long list of things on here that I'm embarrassed to even read off because it's like I feel like I'm humble bragging or something.
- [Josef] That night Ru took me to a new club designed by the artist TOTC.
(upbeat music) Just like many real life venues, this club scene is 18 plus and you're invited through adult only discord servers.
Once inside the club, it was unlike anything I'd ever seen before.
(upbeat music) Ru got up to DJ and the Calibrate dance team with full body tracking, accompanied her.
♪ You make me feel so ♪ (upbeat music) - [Josef] It was strange how the banging music, dancers, and light show felt like being in a real nightclub but this experience surpassed what is possible in real life.
♪ Free, free, free ♪ ♪ You make me feel so free ♪ - [Josef] In this world, people can truly be whoever or whatever they like and that creates a lot of diversity amongst the crowd.
There are furries dancing next to anime girls and robots standing next to car driving frogs.
(upbeat music) - [Josef] But the fact that you can present yourself as whoever you want to has made this scene a safe space for trans and non-binary people.
When your real life body doesn't fit, you can create an avatar that matches who you really are.
- [Ru] Unlike in the real world where a expensive surgeon may be what I need to get how I want to feel about myself, I can come in here and I can look how I want, I can control the presentation and image that I give to others, and for trans individuals, trans men, and trans women, that is extremely powerful.
(upbeat music) - I don't know if I just felt safe hiding behind the headset but unlike when I attend a real life club, I didn't feel like anyone was judging the way I look or the goofy way that I dance.
- You having a good time Jojo?
- I'm glad hun, very glad, welcome to our world, we're happy to have you here with us.
(crowd cheering) - [Josef] This idea of the metaverse is not at all new, growing up, I spent a lot of time in avatar-based chat rooms like Habbo Hotel, IMVU, and Second Life.
VRChat feels very similar and there's a reason for that.
Text and avatar-based chat rooms are the predecessors of VRChat which came out in 2017, following a successful relaunch of consumer VR headsets in 2016.
With this new ability to be able to create avatars that track to your real life movements, VRChat users began to create dance communities.
This is one of the first venues, DanceDanceVR which formed in January, 2018.
Following the creation of DDVR, other venues began popping up, like Dirty Dancers, Elysium KMK, and Rizumu.
This is Aliquem, owner of Rizumu, she manages a team of hosts, promoters, DJs, and everything else needed to operate the venue.
VRChat is free and so are the parties.
For Aliquem, this is a passion project where she can hang out and party with her friends.
(upbeat music) - My social life wasn't the greatest in real life I guess, but here, I kinda started to find a new confidence in myself after meeting all the amazing people that I have.
(upbeat music) Just like a total 360 of where I was without it, that it's almost really unbelievable.
(upbeat music) - [Josef] By the end of 2019, the attendance in VR clubs had been steadily growing, but nobody anticipated that a global pandemic would shut down nightlife everywhere.
- You know, a lot of people probably felt like their whole world was collapsing because of it, like for us, that are, you know, I guess like regulars here, it's like nothing changed.
- [Josef] With nightclubs on pause in the real world, people turned to virtual spaces for entertainment.
- Especially with this pandemic going on, how are people supposed to interact in a safe environment?
Let's take it a little bit higher.
- This actually does feel like just talking to someone in real life in a way.
Other than that, we are both anime characters.
In April of 2020, there were 18,000 simultaneous users on VRChat.
This last New Year's Eve, there were almost 90,000.
On my last night in the VR dance scene, I actually visited a club that formed during the pandemic, the club is called Shelter and it was created by 2TD and Kye.
When you enter Shelter, you load into a company office building.
From there, you take the stairs down to a warehouse where the company is shipping out VR headsets.
You could say it's very... meta.
Once outside, you're on the night streets of LA, take a back alleyway behind a records store, and you end up in an underground bunker that has been transformed into a nightclub.
(upbeat music) 2TD started as a DJ and musician for in person events but when the pandemic started, that all came crashing to a halt.
- I lost my manager, I lost all the agents I was talking to, it was like I was almost at that point where I was like, "Oh, maybe I'll be able to do this for a living," and it just got ripped, like it was like, (2TD whooshing) just all gone.
- [Josef] After meeting Kye in VRChat, the two created their own virtual club.
- It saved my whole project.
I've been doing this for 12-ish years and the entire time, I never felt like what I did mattered, I never felt like I could make things that people cared about, and then it was like, people come up to me and tell me that it's saved them from being in a really bad negative mindset, oh, sorry, it messes me up when I talk about it.
(upbeat music) - Kye, how many hours do you think you've spent building this world?
- A lot, and it was with other people too.
- [Josef] Kye and his team designed and created every part of this space, from the graffiti alleyways to the ceiling panels inside the venue, it's all custom-made.
- Absolutely changed my life for the better in so many ways, gotten away from so much bad stuff, like I don't know where I'd be if I didn't have this, so.
- Shelter's not the only place with original designs, in fact, all of these clubs are user-generated by members of the community.
It's almost like the Wild West a little bit.
- Yeah, I like that.
- Totally is.
- That's what art's supposed to be in my opinion.
- Like Punk DIY meets the matrix.
- Yeah, exactly.
(both laughing) - [Josef] This creative freedom is a big reason why VRChat has become second reality for many.
- This is a reality, there is a person standing right here, I cannot touch him physically, but they are here, like, I can talk to them and they can teach me how to do calculus and then I can go to a job and use that calculus, like, that's real, that's a real skill, you know?
Like I've learned so many real skills from people in here.
I just had a piano recital, I play classical piano.
I taught somebody in VRChat classical piano.
(calm music) - When I talk to people who have never experienced this world before, many express a fear that virtual reality is gonna replace the world that we live in.
Recently, Seoul in South Korea announced that they're creating a metaverse version of their city so that citizens can visit the mayor's office or attend mass events in virtual reality.
Here in the United States, some companies have even started hosting company meetings in VR spaces.
But for the members of this scene, VR doesn't replace real life, it just adds another option and sometimes it offers an escape when real life gets hard.
- Even if it is just like a dance party community or whatever, there is a lot of love and passion here for everybody and it's just, I don't think there's anything better than that that I could probably ever ask for.
If I didn't have that, I wouldn't be standing in front of you.
(bright music) - When I first heard about VRChat, I thought, "Oh, it's just a video game," but after meeting this community, I learned that it's much more than that to many people.
(bright music) How do you think this scene will be remembered in the future?
(Aliquem chuckling) - For one, as the real metaverse, we always say this is our metaverse and nobody's stealing it.
(bright music) - [Josef] As technology is rapidly changing the world around us, these creators are on the cutting edge of nightlife scene, but what impresses me the most about this community is that the venues and avatars may be virtual but the relationships and bonds they form are all very real.