The Ultimate Empathy Machine: VR And Social

“In real life, I was nothing but an antisocial hermit…A pale-skinned pop culture-obsessed geek…I was just another sad, lost, lonely soul, wasting his life on a glorified video game.” — “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline

This past weekend I visited the “Teknopolis” exhibit at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, a showcase of interactive technology featuring two floors of exquisitely designed digital landscapes. The 15 of so visitors walked inside and around the installations, manipulating shapes and sounds with their hands and bodies. The experience was totally captivating, but I couldn’t help wondering: Why wasn’t it more crowded? Where is everyone?

Then I discovered the third floor. Filled to fire code limit was a room full of laughing, gesturing and wobbling humans with VR headsets strapped to their faces. Others queued happily, waiting for their chance to try the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or Gear VR. Both the Rift and the Vive require a user to be tethered to a powerful PC, and the trail of cables snaking from the backs of people’s heads reminded me of that scene from “The Matrix” when Neo abruptly wakes up after swallowing the red pill. Surprise! You’re a human battery!

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As great as they are, this first generation of full VR headsets (the Rift and Vive in particular) presents a number of challenges for the casual user. They are expensive, hard to set up, and require an external PC to work. Since most of the early adopters have been gamers, there is not a lot of non-gaming content to choose from. But all of these things will improve considerably over the next two years.

However, the form factor of a VR headset is not likely to change massively in the near term. Unlike AR, which gives users a different view of their world, VR gives the user a different world. In order to accomplish this, to achieve an utterly convincing sense of “presence,” a VR headset has to co-opt the user’s sensory system. Not just sight, but sound and touch as well. Which means that goggles, headphones and body haptics (like hand-held sensors) will be part of the package for a while.

A common critique of VR is that it is will make us even more antisocial than we already are. But there are powerful counter-arguments against this. Chris Milk, probably the most accomplished film maker working in VR today, has called VR the “ultimate empathy machine.” Experienced in VR, his movie “Clouds Over Sidra,” about a 12-year-old Syrian girl living in a Jordanian refugee camp, carries an emotional power that is hard describe. The viewer does not watch the movie as much as experience it as a participant, with all distance between viewer and subject removed. That effect is impossible with 2D film.

Recognizing the untapped potential of social VR, a number of startups have gotten into the action. Big Screen, which in February raised $3 million from Andreessen Horowitz and others, makes remote collaboration feel like you’re sitting side-by-side with your team in a shared virtual space. Users can see each other and their screens, and uses range from group business meetings, music & video editing sessions, movie watching to PC gaming. The company has 150,000 active users, some of whom spend 20 to 30 hours each week in Big Screen, making it one of the most widely used apps in the industry.

Against Gravity, which also raised capital in February — $5 million from Sequoia, First Round Capital, and others — makes a product called Rec Room, in which communities of people play games together, like ping-pong and paintball. The tone is fun, whimsical and silly, and the average playtime is 35 minutes. More than 100,000 people around the world participated during the second half of 2016, many of them forming lasting friendships.

Engagement numbers like these are impressive, and they are hard for marketers to ignore. It is becoming clear that VR is not just going to be a better version of a console game. With its ability to convey emotional experiences that far exceed the limits of 2D film, to join people separated by physical and economic gulfs, and to create novel forms of social interactivity, VR (as well as AR) needs to be understood as the next computing platform.


Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

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