Can Virtual Reality Save Us in our Fight for Connectivity?

Exploring the collaborative possibilities of virtual reality technology.

As a developer of Virtual Reality content, you face a unique problem that isn’t present in other development mediums — the complete cutoff from the current environment.

With the current state of VR, a user has to put on a full headset— and often headphones—transporting them out of the current environment to a completely new space. However, it cuts them off from any interaction with people around them. People can walk right past, and they would never know.

The Isolation Issue

We have already seen the issue of isolationism grow in our world of ever increasing tech reliance, in part thanks to an increased dependence on social media for our connections to the outside world. According to a Duke University study, between 1985 and 2004 the number of people who said there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled, to 25% of people.

And this isn’t just a matter of people feeling lonely, but a matter of life and death. Another study from Brigham Young University claims that the feeling of loneliness increases the risk of death by 26%.

With the Virtual/Augmented Reality market estimated to reach over $150 billion dollars by the year 2020, this problem of technology-induced isolation is looming large. SpaceX and Tesla C.E.O. Elon Musk considered the effects of VR in an interview with Vanity Fair.

“You really feel like you’re there, and then when you come out of it, it feels like reality isn’t real. I think we’ll see less physical movement in the future, as a result of the virtual-reality stuff.” — Elon Musk

There’s no stopping technological advancement. So, the question becomes, “How do we use the technology to encourage collaboration and foster connections with people? How can we avoid a future where we are all living in virtual parallel worlds, with little connection to each other or reality?”

I believe there are two ways to solve this problem. VR headset-to-headset, or VR headset-to-outside-world.

Headset-to-Headset

One company working on a headset-to-headset solution is middleVR. Their work centers around developing VR collaborative meeting rooms. This technology will allow engineers and architects from all over the world to meet in a virtual conference room. They’ll not only be able to communicate verbally, but they will also be able to interact with their 3D models.

Image courtesy of Hao Li, Oculus Facebook Rift

There are obvious hurdles when using the VR world to collaborate, the largest of these being non-verbal communication. It’s said that the majority of our communication is nonverbal. Facebook is currently working on solving this issue by bringing our facial expressions along with us into the virtual world.

This solution could not only serve a purpose for companies like Facebook who are looking to get us to interact on their social platform, but also for businesses all over the world.

In 2013, business travel spending reached $274 billion for the US alone. We are spending money flying people all over the world to have in-person meetings. Many employees are forced to commute long distances — some several hours each way. This type of technology could allow for more efficient remote work (which is rapidly growing in popularity) and decrease business travel expenditure.

We could transfer work from a place to a state of mind.

Headset-to-Outside-World

An innovative game from Steel Crate Game called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes attempts to tackle the VR headset-to-outside-world collaboration. The game? Put the person with the headset in front of a bomb which only the people in the outside world know how to diffuse. As a team, you are fighting against time to diffuse the bomb before it explodes.

This kind of experience actually forces collaboration. It requires the person with the headset on to have complete faith in the people around them. These kind of interactions are an important part of building strong collaborative relationships.

Combining Both

There is one company who is trying to take both headset-to-headset and headset-to-outside-world solutions and combine them into one. The Void takes teams of people into a physical space, giving them all VR headsets. This transforms what is, in reality, a simple warehouse, into an entirely new place.

Nothing is as transformative in virtual reality as being able to reach out and touch a physical wall that translates to a wall you see in the virtual world.

When you combine the two, you are able to transport entire groups to a different world. One of the exciting training possibilities that this type of technology offers is in relation to our police, firemen, and armed forces. This technology gives them a “real” experience rather than having to use a training ground.

Experiences like these are the key to encouraging person-to-person connections and collaboration in a virtual reality. VR doesn’t have to mean isolation! I believe that, as we move forward in our roles of VR developers, it’s our responsibility to consider how we can encourage collaboration (and not isolationism) in our VR experiences.