HBO’s groundbreaking virtual reality documentary highlights stories that “are very human and relatable”

The HBO Max original documentary, “We Met In a Virtual Reality,” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on HBO, and it is every bit original.

Director Joe Hunting filmed the entire feature-length documentary, which can also be streamed on HBO Max, in the virtual-reality game, VRChat. And after premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, in the world documentary competition, it is now set to take off in homes across the world.

Hunting’s involvement with the VRChat community began in 2018, and is the clear inspiration behind his creation. This isn’t the first time Hunting documented virtual reality’s social spaces — he filmed an 11-episode series, “Virtual Speaking” — but this film raises the bar, and lives in and around the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, it features interviews and conversations with VR chat users filmed during the early stages of the pandemic’s shutdown.

Hunting expressed to the Sundance Institute that his intention behind “We Met in a Virtual Reality” was to give viewers a different perspective on the metaverse. The metaverse refers to the ever-evolving digital world, and this documentary gives an intimate look at how people find belonging, support and community in modern-day times through the Internet.

Hunting acknowledged that living in the metaverse would present countless problems; however, when used in moderation and paired with reality, it can be enriching.

“Inherently this is a documentary about social VR,” he said, adding that the film’s core focus is not the technical aspects of virtual reality. “The stories we follow are very human and relatable.”

And by covering contemporary subjects of mental health, gender expression and raising awareness of the deaf experience, he is “making it clear that the film, at its core, is about how these online communities impact real people.”

The film follows three different pairs of VRChat users. The first being Jenny and Ray, who are part of the sign-language VRChat community, “Helping Hands.” They teach American Sign Language to other VRChatters, and Ray is hard of hearing in a community that is heavily reliant on the voice-chatting aspect of the game they play.

Hunting stressed the learning possibilities that virtual reality possesses, adding that “when it came to sharing the first story of social VR, I really wanted to push how people can use the platform for good and for education and for humanitarian reasons. There are issues inside of social VR as there are everywhere on the internet but there is so much good to be found as well.”

Through virtual reality, Jenny and Ray are able to teach people who hail from any corner of the world. According to Jenny, people “form central relationships on these online communities that can give them a sense of purpose.” She even goes as far as describing these relationships as possibly “life saving.”

Many of the VR chatters who appear in the documentary have been affected by loneliness in some capacity, as well. This increased amid the pandemic, as people often sought social interactions. Jenny was one of them.

“This year has been really hard,” she said, adding that the connections made on VRChat helped with mental health struggles. “The thing that has kept me sane has been VR and the VR community. I would not have weathered this without you guys.”

Hunting also observes two long-distance couples who met on VRChat. Users “DustBunny” and “Toaster,” virtual dance instructors, met each other through dancing on VR. DustBunny expressed her love of teaching in the virtual world and stated that if she could make it a full time career, she would.

With all of its advances, virtual reality does not substitute the real-life intimacy one gets from face-to-face interactions. Still, “Toaster” describes long-distance dating with VR as a “game changer.” Users are able to feel their partner’s presence more than they would in a conventional phone call.

“IsYourBoi” and “DragonHeart” make up the second couple in the film. The pair met at a VRChat exotic dance club where they both currently perform. That occurred during the initial phases of the pandemic shutdown, and since then, the pair have not met face to face.

“We’re 5,000 miles apart,” DragonHeart said. “But we’re gonna try our best to make it work.”

Elio Díaz is a Cuban-American journalism student who is pursuing a career in sports journalism and commentating. Díaz has a background in mixed martial arts and hopes to use that experience to better relate to and interview combat athletes