by David Porzio
“In this world where you can transform the self and have any experience a human being can fathom, what are the consequences to the self? What are the consequences to society?” — Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab on the impact of Virtual Reality.
Lately, two questions are on my mind. They pop into my head when I flip through my iPhone apps, when my alarm rings reminding me to eat, sleep, and . . . to meditate. They return as WhatsApp indicates that I have a message from a friend on the other side of the globe, literally in Timbuktu . . . I scroll through myInstagram feed: same two questions. I pop in my earphones and jog (or limp with my recently busted ankle) to the gym. I shoot a mob enforcer in the head on my younger cousin’s PlayStation. OK OK, on my PlayStation. I learn French on my iPad. Whatever the specific scenario, the same two questions demand to be answered.
Question Number One: What is technology adding to our lives?
And, maybe more importantly, Question Number Two: What is technology taking away from our lives?
These questions beget others.
How can we “Be Here Now” (RIP Andy Whitfield)?
How can I be the best friend, coworker, or family member that I can possibly be?
And what is best for me?
What are the healthy ways to use technology?
Wait . . . I’ve got a Facebook message from my Virtual Reality Partner, Meghan Nelson.
And so it goes. The navel-gazing introspection is over. For the thousandth time this week, an interruptive, digital technology ignites real-world action and I am walking from my west side apartment to Fifth Avenue.
The building housing the NYU Media Lab feels like one of those high-rise midtown buildings replete with Logitech picture takers, marble-lined elevator banks, and electronic turnstiles. The only signifier that I’m in a place of higher education is the sea of bright-eyed students. It’s 2017, so their bright and shining faces are even further illuminated by the glow of their mobile phones.
As we enter the VR lab, Meghan introduces me to Daffy London, VR Director and the creator of Holo Doodle.
Meghan, Daffy, and I are then introduced to the NYU’s director of Virtual Reality, Ken Perlin, along with the three supervising engineers organizing the game set-up and the video production team. We will be filming the game play.
Holo Doodle is a multiplayer VR game. Basically, it’s an advanced form of Pictionary.
Both you and your playing partner are giant, pink robots. The giant, pink robot players are on stage facing a massive auditorium, the house packed with an audience of giant, pink robots. A handsome pink robot plays a nine foot Steinway piano. Each team has two players. Each player takes a turn as artist and, then, as a guesser.
The guesser sits in a chair facing away from the audience. A giant digital screen is visible only to the audience and the guesser. The artist can see words fed through a television only visible to the artist.
Each team competes to see who can guess the most words. There are five rounds divided into two-minute blocks. At the end of five rounds, points are tallied. Winners are declared and celebrated. Losers are (killed and eaten after being) saluted for their valiant efforts.
See? Same thing as good old-fashioned Pictionary, just with some added pixels and wires, right? Nope. Totally, completely, unequivocally wrong.
First major difference:
I first met my Holo Doodle Pictionary partner just as you might meet anybody in the “real” world. Except that we met in a virtual world. I heard her voice and we shook hands with our pink robot hands much like we would have shaken hands in the “Real World”.
Before I can even fully appreciate my sweet new pink robot look, we’re already playing the game and my robot partner proves to be a virtuoso!
We dance and laugh, share some virtual high fives and chat a bit about our virtual awesomeness in between rounds. Once the goggles come off, we meet in person for the first time.
“Hello there!!! I’m David”
“Ha, I know who you are, Mr. Robot! You are an above average dancer, below average drawer, but you’ve got the heart of champion. And, my name is Jean.”
And there it was. A bit of profundity to be found in this wacky pink robot Holo Doodle-ness.
Jean first “met” me in an identity completely separate from my real-life identity, yet connected with me and “knew me.” And I her.
Well-done virtual reality experiences can be meaningful in a way that carries over into the real world. In fact, research supports my little epiphany. Virtual reality can have deep and long-lasting effect on human behavior. 1 As you can imagine, this represents a pretty amazing opportunity. While recent video game violence research tells us people may become more aggressive in the real world post game play, the inverse may be true. 2 Creating experiences that allow us to work and build things together, can make us more empathetic toward one another.
Leaving the lab many more pizza slices later — Holo-Doodling makes you VERY hungry! — my mind wanders back to those questions I’d been circling earlier in the day.
What is technology adding to my life?
Answers come a bit easier now. Happiness, stimulus, play, empathy for a start. Maybe even friendship and real connection. And a sense that I’m tied to others in a way that matters.
What is it taking away?
The barriers to truly understanding each other. The space between my world and yours. If we let it.
What are the healthy ways to use technology?
To create visceral, entertaining experiences that connect us to other humans. To “walk in each other’s” shoes and see each other’s worlds.
If I can inhabit a pink robot, I also can walk around in the experience of someone whose identity is vastly different from mine, whether they’re a woman, or black, or living in the rural South.
If I feel a tug on my heartstrings watching a 2D video of the experience of a trans girl coming of age in a middle America public school…imagine how viscerally I might understand her if I am able to walk around inside that world and be reminded of the structural impediments that she has to navigate, the judgemental glares of her peers and teachers, and the hobbies and friends she loves just like any other kid.
That’s not just healthy. That’s life changing.
1. Sims, T., Bailenson, J., & Carstensen, L.L. (2015). Connecting to Your Future Self: Enhancing Financial Planning among Diverse Communities Using Virtual Technology. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Gerontological Society of America, Orlando, FL.
2. APA Task Force on Violent Media. (2015). Technical report on the review of the violent video game literature. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/families/violent-media.aspx.