BusinessInsider.com reporter Dave Smith recently experienced social virtual reality – not the videogame kind anybody who has demo’d VR has experienced, where you find yourself in some exotic activity like standing on top of a skyscraper or snorkeling by Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. And Smith says, “social is the killer app of virtual reality,” likely why Facebook acquired Oculus Rift for $2 billion last summer.
Imagine the fun of watching a World Cup game with fans from a dozen countries – or an inspiring TED Talk and being able to talk about it afterwards with friends or relatives on another continent. In “I finally understand why Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion,” Smith describes hanging out in a beautiful virtual zen garden and watching a football game with people at social VR startup AltspaceVR.
So big deal – why my headline about augmenting our humanity online? Two things:
1. How real 3D makes it. Smith writes that “hand gestures and head movements were being translated to VR perfectly in real-time. This was noteworthy to me: Even though it was a robot avatar, the gestures made it feel like I was really in a room with this person.” He and the other person could chat, fist-bump, watch a game and just generally share an experience in the same digital space truly almost as in physical space. “Even though it was a robot avatar, the gestures made it feel like I was really in a room with this person…. His head even subtly leaned forward when he laughed.
“That’s key because researchers, nonprofit organizations and some companies – such as Facebook with its Compassion Research Day and work to get social-emotional learning into its abuse-reporting system – have been trying to figure out how to increase empathy and compassion in a space lacking facial expressions and other social cues that elicit them in physical space. Experimenting with emoticons is just one example of projects being worked on. That’s really important work, but maybe VR is the way digital social is going. We might be coming full circle. Maybe in a generation or less, we’ll be routinely experiencing in digital spaces the empathy-causing expression that’s extremely close to what we’ve always had in physical spaces.
2. A certain something else. It’s hard to describe, but there’s something unique about being with other people in a slightly magical “space.” I get what Smith’s talking about. I’ve experienced it as my avatar, Anny Khandr, in Second Life, talking with educators on an island that was then rented by the International Society of Technology in Education (ISTE) and “run” by teachers (or their avatars, rather) volunteering as docents.At the same time we were sitting in our homes, classrooms and offices all over the planet, were were chatting face-to-face in a digital space, having the same experience.
It’s not just novelty. It’s almost like an extra dimension – or new layer – of humanity. There’s a sweetness or innocence to it. Maybe because people feel safe and “heard” at the same time. There’s a little added sense of safety and emotional distance in communicating through one’s avatar, so there’s an added open-heartedness or a little less inhibition. People can get silly, ask what could be a silly question, be a little more kind, vulnerable, generous, playful or all the above at once. Not just “be themselves” but even their best selves. After a bunch of experiences in Second Life (and this was in the last decade using technology much less sophisticated than what Smith describes), I got used to that feeling of “earth” and some of its accompaniments dropping away for the time I was “in world.” You kind of have to experience it to believe it, which is why Smith wrote he “finally understood why Facebook” got into VR.
It’s not that VR is the solution to social cruelty (we users are) or that VR will replace all other types of interaction in digital spaces. But I do think that, as it grows in uptake and popularity, it will at least help make it very clear that we’re human beings behind the texts, comments, photos and avatars in digital spaces. And it may even help us be more humane.
- “Facebook to launch social virtual reality experiences in Oculus Rift” in The Guardian
- “My bizarre trip into virtual reality with Oculus Rift” in Fortune
- “The sweetness in social media use” that we don’t hear or talk about much
- My post about FB’s acquisition of Oculus just about a year ago