“At a time of drastic social and cultural upheaval, when most of the world’s population longed for an escape from reality, the OASIS provided it, in a form that was cheap, legal, safe, not (medically proven to be) addictive.” Also Read - Hike reports 33% surge in daily time spent on its platform
This line from page 58 of Ernest Cline’s 2011 science fiction novel, Ready Player One, defines a virtual world that we have been longing for. Since reading the novel and watching the movie, I have been wondering who would take the first crack at creating such a world. Not identical but similar in ethos. While most bets were in favor of Facebook, Hike is really taking the risk. Called HikeLand, which debuts today as an early preview within Hike Sticker Chat app, is an attempt to bring offline experience to an online world. Also Read - HikeMoji comes out of beta; adds option to bring stickers to WhatsApp
What is HikeLand?
The similarities between HikeLand and Ready Player One end at idea. In terms of execution, they are two different virtual worlds altogether. While OASIS was about massive multiplayer online gaming, HikeLand wants to be the massive online social platform. The experience starts within the Hike Sticker Chat app by tapping on a world symbol. As soon as you open the app, this is the first thing you will notice. It is distinctly showcased with the word “New” on top of it. Also Read - Hike Sticker Chat: How to create and share personalized HikeMoji stickers
When you enter HikeLand, the first thing you need to do is build your own HikeMoji. This becomes the virtual avatar that represents you in this online world. Once you have your HikeMoji, you enter HikeLand, which is currently an experience with two distinctive islands – Home and Big Screen. Kavin Bharti Mittal, Founder and CEO of Hike, told BGR India that these experiences will “change the way people hangout online”. In its early preview, Kavin says that Hike is only laying the groundwork for a virtual world that could be much different.
Hike has also been smart about the product implementation from the start. The whole platform is designed as a mobile-first experience and has a portrait interface and not landscape. Kavin told me that this design is based on the current Sticker Chat experience. However, the new streaming platform called Quibi has shown that UI and UX need not be limited to a particular orientation. Its implementation, called Turnstyle, has shown the way forward for UI to change from portrait to landscape and adapt the content shown on the screen.
Meet your virtual home
Kavin is not ruling out the possibility of HikeLand becoming a landscape experience in the future. For now, it depends on vertical scrolling and works well. As soon as you enter HikeLand, you get your own virtual Home with options to customize it according to your own liking. There are eight themes to decorate your home right now and Hike plans to add more options soon. The idea of a home here is a virtual space where you can invite your friends and either chat or watch content together. In our current world limited by pandemic, you cannot invite your friends home. HikeLand let’s you do just that but on a virtual platform.
In the preview state, you can only invite one friend but Kavin told me that beta testers have already started asking for an option to invite more friends. This means HikeLand will also have to scale the proportion of home within the ecosystem. Once you are set, you can watch content on a TV mounted to the wall of your home. This TV is powered by YouTube for now but Hike plans to bring new content partners in the form of Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar, Amazon Prime Video and others. Once you and your friend start watching something on your TV, you can continue to chat with them or call them from the app.
“Home is designed as a voice-led experience but video calling will be added in coming weeks,” Kavin said when we spoke via Google Meet. It is still not clear how video calling will work with HikeLand but it is likely to take the form of chat bubbles or PiP window. Once you enter this home, Hike has done a lot of neat things that showcase the understanding behind the product. If you are watching a movie together and calling your friend, HikeLand let’s you control the volume of both the media as well as call. It is a small feature but one that immediately transforms the user experience.
The virtual Big Screen experience
I think the Home is a very clever experience. It is limited to only two people but also very much personal. However, the theme behind this home seems to have a lot of western influence like the living room seen in Big Bang Theory. I mean the home does not look like an Indian home, which is mostly cluttered but distinct wherever you go. I would really like to see a theme which shows Indian homes in their true forms. The experience right now is limited to meeting a friend virtually in your home and then watching content together on the big screen. If you want to expand your experience in HikeLand then you need to venture into the second island – Big Screen.
Think of Big Screen as a theater near you but with a social twist. Instead of just watching movies or a play, you get to interact and build friendship here. This is a true example of bringing an offline experience into an online world. The socializing happens around the content people love. Big Screen, like the TV in your virtual Home, is powered by YouTube right now. It runs shows around comedy, sports and other genres. Once inside the virtual theater, you can get notified about a new show that is about to start playing. You get notified as soon as a content selected by you starts playing on the big screen.
The first screen you see is designed exactly like the way it is in the real world. You see content on the big screen and people taking their seats. In fact, it sometimes looked like people scrambling to get settled, which is typical for every theater in this country. Inside the theater, you can tap on HikeMoji of others watching the same show. You will see their profile and then send them a message. The messages are end-to-end encrypted and you can only send one message. Kavin told me that they have built filters to scan for explicit messages. HikeLand users will get three to five warnings for sending explicit messages before they are banned from the platform.
What’s next for HikeLand?
Big Screen is a clear opportunity for HikeLand to go beyond conventional content screening from YouTube. With its Travis Scott concert, Fortnite has shown that there is a genuine opportunity to bring offline experiences to an online world. While Fortnite is a gaming-first community, Hike can do the same with a social twist. Kavin says the experiences being introduced right now are “seeds to something bigger”. He added that the immediate focus is “doubling down on existing islands and then add new islands”.
He also said that HikeLand would function as a virtual world away from the real world. So, he does not see social commerce as a way forward. Instead, Hike is planning to introduce virtual currency (maybe HikeCoin) with the future release. “Big things start deceptively small,” Kavin told me during the chat. After using HikeLand, it is really small. In fact the experience is limited for a reason. Hike says it’s users spend most time active between 10:00PM and 12.30AM. For those users, this experience won’t be limited but enriching and an extension to their own persona. With access to cheap data and powerful mobile devices, the success depends on how Hike scales the platform.