by Craig Lloyd on
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Recently, Plex announced its brand new Plex VR app. Watching movies in VR is nothing new, but Plex also announced a newer, more interesting feature: Watch Together. You and up to three friends, each with your own VR headsets, can sit in a virtual living room and watch movies or TV together—no matter where you are in the world. While we were impressed with the experience, it leaves us with one question: why does this have to be VR in the first place?
Before I start pining for features that don’t exist, let’s talk about the ones that do. Plex VR is a standalone app built for Google Daydream that gives you a virtual theater and menu where you can watch anything in your Plex library. The default space is a luxury penthouse apartment with a coffee table, covered in cups, popcorn bowls, and plates. You can pick up each of these and throw them around the room. There’s no point to this, but it’s fun, especially if you feel like throwing popcorn at a bad movie.
Whether or not you like the idea of watching a movie in a virtual theater, the Plex VR experience is a polished one.
As you browse through your Plex library, you can grab individual cards floating in front of you and set them down. Say you want to look through your library to find something to watch, you can physically pick out a couple candidates, set them down on the couch, read through the descriptions of each one and, when you’re ready, hit play on one to bring up a floating screen to watch the movie. Once you play a movie, the blinds in your “apartment” even automatically close, dimming the virtual room for a better view. You can even resize the virtual in-room movie screen to be as big or as small within the virtual space as you want.
Virtual reality theaters aren’t necessarily the best way to watch a movie—you’re basically putting a magnifying glass up to your phone’s screen, which results in a very pixelated video—but Plex VR at least manages to make it fun. If you don’t have a fancy home theater, or if you want to watch a movie on an airplane, you could do worse than Plex VR.
Sitting with a VR headset on your couch watching a movie is still a little too silly to get off the ground if you have another option (like even a modest TV or a laptop with a big screen). That’s presumably why Plex offered something compelling that you can’t do with your normal home theater: watch with friends across the globe.
Plex’s Watch Together feature lets you invite up to three other friends—all with their own Daydream headsets and Plex accounts, naturally—to join you in your virtual theater. Their floating avatars will appear on the seats next to you. You’ll even be able to see their remotes as they move through the air.
When you play a movie in this mode, it starts playing for everyone. If you pause it, it pauses for everyone. Each person in your theater hears the same audio, and they’re all at the same point in the movie. If you’ve ever tried to watch a movie with a long distance friend or family member, you realize immediately how amazing this is. No more counting down and hitting play at the same time. No more weighing whether it’s worth pausing and re-syncing just to use the bathroom. You can all watch as though you were in the same room. Give or take a couple of floating robot heads.
Synchronized and simultaenous play, not the virtual popcorn buckets, is the real killer feature of the Plex VR experience.
I tried this out with two headsets on the same Wi-Fi network and it worked incredibly well. The movie was almost perfectly in sync in both headsets the entire time. If it ever slipped out of sync (usually because I messed with something, rather than the system itself failing), hitting the pause button and playing again re-synced everything. Playback was virtually flawless. As a bonus, each user can play, pause, or rewind the movie so no one has to fight over the remote.
Voice chat also comes built-in. Simply hold down the middle button on the Daydream remote (the one with a — symbol on it) and start speaking. Your voice will be broadcast to all participants. Plex uses the microphone in your phone which, you might remember, is inside a soft fabric-covered headset strapped to your face. This doesn’t lend itself to decent audio (in fact you only sound slightly better than the intercom at your city’s oldest Taco Bell), but it’s not too big of a deal since you shouldn’t be talking during the movie anyway.
While the experience of watching a movie was virtually flawless, getting started was less so. On multiple occasions, we had issues with the friend system. My girlfriend’s (or my own alt) account wouldn’t show up in the online friends list until I force closed and re-opened the application. Plex wasn’t exactly built to be a social network first, so inviting people to each other’s virtual homes may still be finicky for a while, but once you’re in, things work a lot more smoothly.
Fiddling around with a VR app every once in a while is fun, but as I sat with a headset on, watching a movie with my long-suffering girlfriend in the other room, I couldn’t help but wonder why I needed a VR headset to do this. Yes, obviously I need VR (or a much higher salary) to get an immaculately-decorated penthouse apartment with a million-inch screen. But voice chatting with a friend hundreds of miles away while we watch a movie in sync together? That should be easy.
Third-party applications like Rabbit or Netflix Party have tried to fill this void, but this may be one of the few first-party solutions I’ve seen. And it’s…in VR. Don’t get me wrong, the VR app is fun! But wouldn’t it be fantastic if you and your friend who lives across town, or your sister who moved away, could watch movies that are automatically synced up and pause for everyone without having to strap a $100 VR headset to your face?
Plex is arguably the single most polished stand alone media center software package around and a seamless non-VR way to watch content in sync with your friends would be the icing on the cake.
When I first started using Plex VR, I enjoyed it. As soon as this question occurred to me, though, I realized it was all I wanted. Netflix, Hulu, Plex, even Amazon would all be just that much better if they had a “Watch With Friends!” button I could push to invite someone to watch with me. You don’t need Ready Player One-style avatars or a penthouse apartment or interactive fake buckets of popcorn. You just need a shared pause button, and maybe some voice chat.
For Plex, Netflix, and the whole bunch though, I’ll make you a deal. If you bring the video syncing, I’ll just call my long distance friends to fill in the voice-chat function and we’ll call it even—but in the mean time, I guess we’ll all be wearing headsets.
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