Virtual Reality changes the world, can it change the way we relate to each other?
Every time a new communication medium emerges we wait in suspense how is it going to change the way we live. We are presented with a vision of connected paradise and dystopian apocalypses alike depending on who is talking. The print, telegram and wired phones strongly vilified, made space for radio, and the TV was certainly a “work of the devil” to many. But as it shows, with every new technology, we are just one step closer to better understanding our nature.
By the 21st century, we are more aware of ourselves and the world we live in than ever before, thanks to the Internet and Social Media. What is next? Social VR is often mentioned as the next medium that will revolutionise the way we communicate. We can hear terms like the quality of human relations and the value of human attention being mentioned by major VR stakeholders. But what does it mean? Simply, VR is not just an upgrade, it’s a revolution of magnitude no less than the introduction of the mobile phone. VR stands for two elements that no other medium can offer: immersion & presence. The true meaning of those words can not be told but has to be experienced — you must try Social VR! Where should I go? Try AltspaceVR, VRChat, RecRoom or, if you are invited, Facebook Horizon Beta. You can use an affordable headset like Oculus Quest2. To be clear, I am not advertising here but its simply the best value on the market fullstop.
In short, in Social VR, the feeling of other person extending their hand towards you or gazing at you is something unmet on any other platform. The perception of being co-present in one place, next to each other is simply unparalleled.
OK, now where is gender, race or ethnicity here? Well, it’s all over the place, literally in VR you can be whoever you want, anytime.
The implication is, that standard perception of gender or other properties and related conscious and unconscious biases are very limited in Social VR. What is the difference between VR and the common anonymity we have on social media? VR allows significant privacy and gives you a choice of what to reveal and what to conceal while not limiting your expressivity. In Social VR you can have a truly engaging encounter and form strong relationships unlike on any other platform.
Now what we can do with that freedom? Since the traditional biases can be effectively alleviated in VR the communication can be more focused and pure. Suddenly it does not matter where are you from and how do you look, all matters is who you really are and what you say. If you feel like modelling your avatar after yourself, that is fine, should you not want to, that is fine too. An important aspect of VR is better empathy and the potential to explore different view-points. Here come with help VR storytelling and impressive works by VR artists. You can try to explore the world through different people perspectives and learn how does it really feel to be discriminated or mistreated, something that can’t be simply observed but must be experienced.
What can we learn from VR then? Quite much, especially that we should not be defined by our looks or our origin but rather by what we hold in our mind. What’s in it for me? Go, try Social VR and figure it out yourself, nobody can tell you that. I deeply believe VR can help you to evolve to be a better person.
Personal and Professional Observations
I have been a researcher in Social Media and VR domain and the topic of new communication paradigms is my passion. I have been organizing immersive VR sessions with various stakeholders and I am more than confident that VR has much to offer to minorities and underprivileged groups who struggle to communicate for many reasons. More research must be done to unleash the full potential of Social VR but the grassroots studies provide enough premises to make me feel confident that VR will help us to communicate better online and by changing our mindset, it will positively impact our real-life interactions too!