Hi from Austin, everyone!
I’m here in town for South By Southwest, a giant conference that takes over the city of Austin, Texas and has tracks across all sorts of themes relating to immersive media, virtual reality, technology, music, politics, and beyond. It’s been a little overwhelming and a lot exciting, and it will culminate with a panel that I’m on tomorrow called How VR and AR Change the Way we Express Ourselves. In preparing for the session, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking on the last two years that I’ve spent at High Fidelity about how social virtual reality experiences can afford us new opportunities to showcase our identities and in talking about it on Twitter, I realized that this is a great opportunity to talk about social VR and why it’s where I’ve found my niche within the immersive technology industry.
Before we dive in, I’ll define a few terms that you’ll see come up throughout this post in the way that I’m thinking about them as I use them:
Avatar – a digital representation of one’s self in a virtual space. Avatars can be considered like a character that you control or embody with computer peripherals.
Server – a computer that stores information and data about a virtual world or service. This can be thought of as the shared truth behind what exists in a virtual world, and can store virtual locations that can be visited by clients.
Environment – a series of 3D models, 2D interfaces, and scripted elements that have specific behaviors and make up what a user observes and can interact with in a space
Pseudonymity –The act of remaining partially anonymous by using a fake name to represent yourself online or in a social experience
What is Social VR?
Let’s start with some definitions. What comes to mind with the words “Social VR?” If you work in the immersive technology space, you probably have some ideas of specific applications that you might think of- High Fidelity, VR Chat, Sansar, and Rec Room could be on your list. Generally speaking, the terms “social virtual reality” refer to platforms that are built from the ground up to allow users to connect with one another in real-time in a shared 3D environment, while using virtual reality technology to control a digital body for themselves called an ‘avatar’.
An easy way to envision these types of environments are through massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPGs) like Activision Blizzard’s World of Warcraft or CCP Games’ Eve Online. These games have persistent worlds that users can explore and interact with each other in, and can host thousands of players in a single ‘server’ (terms you may also hear for instances of these worlds: ‘realms’ and ‘shards’). Linden Lab’s Second Life is a virtual social experience that launched in 2003, and was a direct predecessor of both High Fidelity and Sansar, two of today’s competing social VR platforms.
While social VR most often refers to platforms with these shared spaces, there can be some degree of flexibility with how much of an experience must be shared at a given time for something to be social. Social media, for example, has elements of real-time communication, seen in video calls and live-streaming, as well as asynchronous elements in sharing posts and photos that can be consumed on-demand. Some pieces of our 2D social experiences are temporal, lasting only for a specific amount of time (like you would expect of Instagram or Snapchat stories) while other elements are a part of your virtual identity (think profile pictures and usernames) and still others are more permanent features that compose your online persona (the blog posts or videos you create). The social VR experience ‘Where Thoughts Go‘ explores what a VR space looks like when you can interact with the thoughts and words of the people that have experienced the app before you, but you are not co-present with the other users at the same time.
The most interesting elements of social virtual reality applications look at the intersection of the ways that we communicate and collaborate, and how having a fully embodied avatar to express yourself enhances those features.
Why Social VR?
Humans are naturally pretty social creatures. There are core principles that we hold and form communities around, mostly based on our life experiences, our inherited values and ethics, and where we live. One of the most compelling aspects of social VR is that it democratizes geography, and allows us to meet and interact with users with backgrounds different from our owns, unbounded by the extent to which we are physically able to move our body around in space. The internet does that already, so it may be helpful to think about social VR in the context of extending what the internet has already launched.
There are no prescriptive rules to what social VR can be used for today – that’s one of the things that I love about working in the space! The Wave VR is a social virtual reality experience that focuses on forming community around music and performances, Masterpiece VR allows for collaborative 3D modeling, and the above-mentioned Rec Room is built around user-generated games that players can compete in together. Platforms like High Fidelity, VR Chat, and Sansar provide platforms for users to create their own digital worlds with full ownership and creative control, while the web-based platform Hubs by Mozilla focuses on improving the way that users can meet and collaborate by using the web browser as a client to connect into a shared room.
Like single-player VR, social VR affords users the capabilities to do things that they simply can’t accomplish in the physical world – the differentiator is that now, other users become a part of that shared space. You can create physics-defying worlds to imagine what happens when you near a black hole, or step inside a perfect replica of the inside of a building that has been destroyed. Educators can connect with users around the world to hold classes, musicians can meet fans and shake their hand despite being thousands of miles away, and we are given entirely new ways to think about representing and expressing ourselves through the avatar choices we make, the way we choose to interact through voice or text with others in the spaces we’re in, and the worlds we create for others to explore.
Privacy and Consent in Social VR
One of the commonly cited tools that virtual reality affords is the embodied presence of getting to be virtually present in a digital body. Social VR allows you to share this experience with others in your 3D world, irrespective of where you’re geographically located. Each of the different social VR platforms allows you to represent and express yourself in different forms, ranging from avatars that are robots to fully-articulated humanoids or non-human forms that can be stunningly realistic or heavily stylized. When we think about social VR, it’s critical to do so with the question of privacy and consent in virtual spaces.
Social scientist Jessica Outlaw studies XR Privacy and Social VR behaviors through her site The Extended Mind, and explores the questions about how we’re interacting in these shared spaces and approaches for safe, inclusive design. I can’t explain her research as well as she can, but I strongly implore you all to take a look at her work:
In some ways, social VR platforms today can allow for more pseudonymity and safety than ‘flat’ social media may afford, but privacy concerns and safety for how you may choose to express yourself on a specific VR platform could come with its own repercussions. Some users may act maliciously and with simulated physical aggression towards avatars that present a feminine appearance, for example, which necessitates the ability for one to have tools to protect themselves in such spaces.
The Path Ahead
Ultimately, while social VR holds roots and ties to many existing technologies that inform feature sets and tooling, the future for using virtual and augmented reality technologies for social interaction is bright. Asymmetric experiences, where users are on different devices and perhaps using entirely different modalities for speech or interactions altogether, will increasingly present us with more opportunities to integrate VR into our social communication as a whole.
It’s important to recognize that ‘community’ and ‘communication’ share a root around togetherness.
If you want to learn more about social VR, drop me a comment or send me a message on Twitter (@misslivirose) with your questions – and keep an eye out on the blog for a follow up post to this one, where I’ll do a deeper dive into the specific considerations about building social VR experiences and why I think the future of social VR lies on the web.