Towards stronger human connections in AR/VR/xR

The mixed reality panel on human connections in AR/VR at SIGGRAPH Asia 2017 (Bangkok). Seated left to right are Karan, Brian, Sophie, Mark and the virtual Philip.

It is 2018. We live in times where technology has increasingly connected humans digitally while isolating us physically. Augmented and Virtual Reality, aim to blur the distinction between our digital and physical reality. Will this lead to stronger human connections or further isolation. I had the privilege of ruminating on this in late 2017 with Sophie Ansel a journalist and VR Storyteller, Mark Billinghurst an AR pioneer and Computer Science Professor, Brian Cabral a Director of Engineering at Facebook. and Philip Rosedale the Founder of High Fidelity and Second Life.

My current foray into AR/VR is informed by JanusVR, a company I co-founded in 2014, that re-imagines webpages as webspaces, so instead of looking at web content, you are immersed in it, and notably, in it with other people. This has turned Janus|Vesta into a community of people sharing self-expressive immersive web experiences: often nostalgia of things and places past, events shared in the present, and potentially dystopian visions of the future. Janus is our virtual office, where our tiny team spanning the globe, meets twice a week. The unicycling frog is in LA, the pipe smoking duck is in Australia and the scary clown is a ghost. The scary clown is at a conference, leaving an out-of-office bot to take over his avatar.

A team meeting in JanusVR

Identity

…and there on a real stage, I introduced a larger than life avatar, few thousand textured triangles, as the virtual Philip Rosedale.

What is the burden of proof for identity in AR/VR or any xR?

Identity in the real world, is intertwined with familiarity and intimacy. In addition to external persona, an imposter must capture our conscious beliefs, dreams and memories to make it past people with a shared past. Anonymous encounters today, rely on hard to counterfeit centralized documentation, assuming a “keep the honest, honest” philosophy. There are many reasons to embrace a decentralized representation of identity, as embraced by the recent creation of a VR Blockchain Alliance.

On the other hand, identity can be irrelevant and even an impediment for much of human interaction. I have had intense exchanges with strangers and friends alike in dive bars and cafes, chat windows and forums online, without dwelling on identity.

Technically, the singular thing that AR/VR adds to existing tools for human interaction in cyberspace, is proprioception. Proprioception in this context is a spatial sense of self, in relation to others in a virtual or augmented environment. This enables proxemics, or the sense and use of a “personal space”, otherwise absent in cyber communication. Sadly the abuse of proxemics was principal, among the earliest observations of harassment in socialVR.

Assuming a generally well-intentioned human collective, a decentralized cloak of anonymity whose fabric of identity is controlled in context by the behavior of individuals, can provide that fine balance between the insouciance of anonymity, and the accountable ownership of ones thoughts and actions. A blockchain marketplace is indeed well suited to handle ownership in the digital realm, be it spiritual or material.

As the physical and digital reality of assets intertwine, a blockchain capable of distinguishing a continuum between real and fake, must pervade the entire hardware and software ecosystem between physical and digital, from asset acquisition (scanning) to processing, sharing, display (xR) and fabrication (2D/3D printing).

Self-Expression

While we may not explicitly need to manage self-identity, we do often self-communicate. Drawing and the process of ideation enable a visual intrapersonal conversation. AR/VR gives us a new tool for this, a magic crayon with which to leave a persistent mark in the air.

Glen Keane’s “Victory Dance”

While its immediate utility as an instrument of 3D design is still untested, the magical sense of awe at being able to doodle in space seems universal. AR/VR tools for creative expression will thus undoubtedly play a role in our future connection with ourselves.

Empathy

Eloquently described as “seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another, and feeling with the heart of another”, empathy is critical to strong interpersonal connections. The heightened immersion and potential presence of VR, allows us to experience, share and even assume the reality of another. Experiences like The Enemy, that transport people across their own mental boundaries of gender, orientation, race and religion, have already proven to be successful in giving us a glimpse of what it is like to be on the other side. Empathic virtual experiences can, and thus should, enable humans to escape the confines of subconscious walls inherited or built in the real world, in the hope that we return to reality, free and with fresh insight.

Environment

Inevitably, human connections are shaped in context, and it is imperative we acknowledge, that we live on a planet full of other forms of life, and indeed within a universe full of other forms of matter. Once again, VR can bring a unique perspective, experiencing realms, emotion and thinking beyond the highest heights and deepest depths of our physical reach. Immersive experiences such as Out of the Blue, set out as agents of change, to bring us closer to our environment, our planet.

Isolation

Telecommunication between media and humans through the ages… cave drawings, books, radio, TV, internet, smartphones have all been progressing towards complete interactive immersion, connecting both humans and media. Increased telepresence however, tends to promote physical isolation in at least two scenarios.

One, when one is in a physical space involuntarily or towards an end, like sitting in an airplane, or a waiting room; the lack of other entertainment coerces contact with others in the same predicament. An immersive alternative makes one less interested in physically engaging with others, and others in engaging someone who is visibly pre-occupied; and there is no longer the awkward discomfort of sharing a common but unused sensory space. Two, humans must now compete with devices for physical attention, and the addictive interaction of work or play.

Instead, how might AR/VR promote physical connections?

AR/VR can manipulate space and time: bringing humans physically together in shrunken virtual spaces, as easily as allowing us to roam free from within a physical prison. While experiments on transcending identity and physical isolation like Seeing-I, will both shed light on our ability to adapt to alternate realities, and connect humans on-site and on-line through psycho-voyeurism, we will hopefully avoid the vision of living in physical pod, plugged into a virtual matrix.

…As automation takes over our jobs, routine, and the need for functional support, humans will have space and time to fill, and hopefully fill with what sets us apart: creativity, and more importantly each other.