Virtual Reality: The Social Experience
By Andrea Keklak
Virtual reality has its roots in the realm of gaming, as a more immersive and exciting way for players to engage in their digital platforms. Yet the scope of VR is quickly broadening far beyond video games, as it begins to mirror the diversity of interests within our culture. Virtual reality technology is now being used for everything from simulated architectural design to enhanced educational strategies to programs that allow users to take virtual “vacations” to remote destinations around the world.
One fascinating possibility of VR, perhaps even the inevitable future of the technology, lies in its ability to mimic “normal,” real life interactions in increasingly hyper-realistic ways. Although humans are of course drawn to forms of entertainment, such as video games, we also crave connection and seek out shared experiences with others. Consequently, as virtual reality becomes more realistic, it is possible that our day-to-day interactions may increasingly begin taking place in simulated settings.
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Put differently, the social aspect of virtual reality may soon become more significant than any of its other uses, even gaming. Just as platforms like Facebook, once inundated with single-user games like Spaceman, Farmville, and The Oregon Trail, have become a primarily social experience, where people share and respond to user generated content, so too might VR become more about mutual interaction than solitary entertainment.
When you look at it this way, it seems likely that we have only begun to scratch the surface of VR’s potential as a revolutionary way to connect individuals around the world. We will soon have the technology to simulate facial expressions, eye contact, body language, and other factors that contribute to the our feeling that there’s just “nothing like” meeting in person.
The possible advantages of “social VR” are endless, limited only by the ingenuity of VR developers. For instance, a business executive, rather than flying across the country for a meeting, could sit down at a virtual conference table to address people in a distant branch of his company. Young children could spend time wandering through uncharted 3-D worlds together, just as they might explore in the woods beyond their backyard. Two strangers could ever go on a “VR date,” getting to know each other for the first time in a virtual setting. In the same way that social media profoundly transformed our concept of social interaction, virtual reality may well permanently alter the way we meet, interact, and experience life together.
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Currently, the adoption of virtual reality is still in its early stages. For the average consumer, the idea of a headset that allows you to escape to a simulated world seems like something out of a science fiction movie, rather than something you go pick out at Best Buy. The 2016 Virtual Reality Industry Report projected that while 2 million headsets will be sold by the end of this year, VR remains six to eight years away from reaching a real “tipping point” of becoming a mainstream consumer product. Yet developers remain optimistic about the future of VR, especially when it comes to its potential for social use. And who knows, ten years from now, perhaps we’ll come home to a roommate strapped into a VR headset, who waves us off, saying, “can’t talk right now, I’m on a date.”
Andrea Keklak is a graduate student at Georgetown University.