The tech world is buzzing with a new way to be a social creature in the modern world — a way that transcends any previous attempt to connect people remotely and digitally.
This new possibility finally offers what live social platforms — from early chat rooms to current zoom calls — fall short to recreate: a sense of presence. Virtual reality technology creates presence.
Eclipsing all previous attempts to immerse us, whether it’s in the setting of a game, a story, or simply an other-worldly landscape, VR technology makes us feel that we are truly standing there. The best 2D graphics and even 3D experiences still don’t bring us fully into their worlds. Virtual reality teleports us right there, in the centre of it all.
With Social VR, now it’s not just you, experiencing what it’s like to stand there alone — now you are there, inside the virtual landscape, in the presence of another (or many others). Any barriers to being in the company of another human being — geography, transport expenses, social anxiety, mobility challenges, or even a pandemic — are suddenly greatly lowered, if not completely eliminated.
You are, in actuality, sitting comfortably, safely, in your home, wrapped in your security blanket, or in pyjamas, or in nothing at all (no one is the wiser!). A VR headset feeds your eyes and ears sights and sounds that trick your brain into believing you’re somewhere else.
The spatial experience that VR creates might be one of the keys to the sense of presence and immersion it generates. Unlike flat digital experiences, this one gives you a here and there, an up and down, sense of close to me, and far from me. Replacing the sensory input of only sight and sight is all it takes to create a new reality. The spatial realness of distance and perspective and movement, and even spatial audio, allow you to locate yourself — and others — in the digitally-rendered space.
In VR, I know where you are in relation to me, I see your avatar body, and when we move in virtual space, it all makes sense to my brain. It is my reality, just as real as any reality created by the brain, our biological hardware, that hallucinates the base world I live in. In VR, it feels real, because I am here, in a body, just a bundle of senses, having an experience.
This embodiment is essential to a sense of presence. And it’s achieved in VR, interestingly by replacing only two of our sensory inputs — sight and sound. And that’s more than enough. (And yet, more is on the way, with tactile sensory input in the form of haptics is soon to be part of mainstream VR setups.)
Social VR amplifies the magic of presence with real people embodying other avatars in the same virtual space. These digital representations of bodies come alive with real voices. I see you, I know where you are in relation to me, and I can hear you. Spatial audio enriches the reality. When we move, sounds shift and it makes sense. I can hear your nearness in your voice and an intimacy is ignited. Your voice carries a depth of organic emotion that your digital face can’t quite yet express. Now I feel your humanity and we are alive here together in this virtual world.
Social VR platforms are a portal from our home, even in times of isolation, to real community, creating a possibility for connection unbound by physical distance, travel expenses and time, mobility challenges, health concerns, and even a gentle bridge to friendship in the midst of social anxiety and understanding in an era of social divide. New Social VR platforms are launched seemingly every day, and there seems to be an emphasis on inclusion and kindness. All are welcome, all belong. The developments are not perfect, but there is much to be hopeful about. Connection and friendship and belonging may now be available to so many people, where none was before, and that is a cause for celebration. This, during a time when causes to celebrate and be hopeful feel hard to find, is something to cherish.