There are a lot of concerns shared nowadays about the new wave of virtual reality media. It has been decades since the concept was first used in sci-fi as a dystopian tool to isolate and control the masses – a vision that has not left the minds of many, considering the response to that image of Mark Zuckerberg apparently presiding over an army of Oculus storm troopers! But are these wary types right to fear the impact of Virtual Reality on our sense of belonging and its power to increase loneliness? Will the new immersive technology leave us feeling isolated and adrift?
It is tempting to imagine that one day we will all be sat in solitary cubicles, plugged in and feeding our interactive addiction through headgear. Effectively blocking out the real world from our sensory experience. How would these interactions feel? It is already evident to those using social media that online dialogues can not offer the same rich experience as being physically with a friend. What you can share are merely words and images, not a hug or a gesture. In the world of online dating too, we can feel isolated as we are reduced to an image and few lines of text. These interactions alone are not enough to ward off loneliness, surely. Would Virtual Reality improve our connections with others even over physical distances?
The immersive nature of Virtual Reality creates a genuine intimacy as can be felt in virtual meeting spaces such as vTime and AltspaceVR – it is unexpected and uncanny how the 3-dimensional video adds this quality. Meeting a friend in a space like this is not the same as real life, it is something quite different but it still makes you feel “in touch”. When used with realistic expectations, social media should satisfactorily accompany real life interaction. Virtual social media offers the same benefits, but is more sensory.
Also, consider the fact that in this day and age, firm friendships are now being created online. On forums, and on platforms like Tumblr and Twitter, real people are brought together from miles apart to share in their mutual interests. Now imagine if these spaces were immersive – you could walk around your favourite message board or Twitter feed. People who felt unable to connect with the people around them for lack of shared interests would suddenly be so much freer to interact with others.
You could also imagine how well this would work with online dating – how much more realistic would it feel to meet a potential partner in a virtual bar, rather than exchanging stilted dialogue by text? Here are some of our favourite social VR platforms that work in both friendship and relationship building.
On the other hand, it has already been argued by Tech Radar that solitude is not the same as loneliness. The fantastic and important thing about Virtual Reality is that the experience is private to the user. Two people cannot share a headset, therefore the user shuts themselves away from company when they put one on. For anyone who is already a book worm or introvert, this is not an isolating or sad experience, it is sheer escape. It is wonderful to experience unique adventures, just as dreams exist only and especially for you.
This writer on makeuseof.com argues that Virtual Reality will actually improve the lives of introverts. As long as the user is not neglecting love ones and causing them to suffer loneliness instead, the new technology could help introverts feel accepted in a world where the loudest are often the most heard. besides, would you want to share any of these experiences?!
The reality is that Virtual Reality will probably not replace physical interaction – there is too much to be gained from being “with” a person in real time and space. I do not envision a future of plugged in VR-bots doing everything online. Some will choose this lifestyle, sure, but at the moment, VR is something you do as an activity. You dip into it, and it’s as fun to play as it is relieving at times to come out of. Personal interactions through virtual reality will, at best, serve to supplement our social lives as social media already does.
However, maybe the next question to ask would be whether Virtual Reality will exacerbate the darker side of social interaction – eg. bullying, harassing, stalking – as much as it will enhance positive conversation. One of the pressing concerns of our age is how we protect ourselves from anonymous abuse online. In future posts we will be exploring the idea of the virtual “safe space”. Stay tuned!