The sound of your alarm wakes you up. You glance at your phone. It’s 7:00 a.m.
The sun is shining through a crack in your curtains and you look around, with groggy eyes, at your bare, simple surroundings.
Eventually, you drag yourself out of bed. Waking up to this drab reality is no fun. You make yourself a cup of coffee, finish your morning ablutions, and take a seat on your couch to stare outside (at the external world) in the direction that your balcony faces.
It’s nearly 8:00 a.m. now. But the quietness has not subsided. The nothingness of everything that’s “out there” remains. In fact, there isn’t much out there at all. Streets that once bustled with movement are now still. The highway that once kept you up, now only silently hums, with the occasional carrier truck passing by.
You notice a bit of movement. But not the type that you would have noticed in the past. Now, nature moves by her lonesome. Birds chirp. Bees buzz. Trees ruffle.
You shift your attention away from the quietness. You’ve downed your coffee, and you feel more refreshed.
It’s time: to start your “real” day.
A Future with Two Worlds
A minute later, you’ve entered a completely different world: a virtual one.
This one is busy. This one does bustle with movement.
There are buildings, there’s traffic, and you see several “people” walking around. The sun is shining so bright that you can almost feel its warmth against your skin.
You move about a bit to navigate your surroundings when you notice a familiar-looking Avatar approaching you, waving. It’s your friend, Julie! You hear Julie’s voice come through the Avatar as she greets you hello. You and Julie interact pretty regularly at VMware’s Oculus Venue. It doesn’t matter that she’s physically based out of Paris, thousands of miles away from you.
You high-five Julie as you let her know you’re rushing to a meeting. From what you can remember, the sensation is almost the same as it was in the external world.
All major companies now have a VR “Venue”, powered and designed by Oculus Venues. Oculus builds virtual worlds that mimic a typical company campus or office space.
This is where teams come to meet, where socializing happens, where brainstorming sessions take place, and where new ideas are born.
Oculus allows you to not only interact with your colleague-avatars, but to also multi-task in the virtual space. You can navigate through space and tap into any of the incorporated productivity tools to take notes, draw mind maps, consolidate files, and run through 3D data visualizations.
You can even stand-up and present something to a room of coworkers as you would in the physical world, and thanks to cutting-edge technology, the graphic representation of you will match your physical movement from within the confines of your home.
When you step out of the virtual world, it’s so that you can hydrate, eat, and carry out basic bodily functions.
Some may choose to step away from their headsets for physical exercise. But even physical exercise can be experienced through an immersive group exercise class, hosted by one of the Virtual Gyms.
Though your body would physically be moving only within your home, your conscious experience takes place in a vast, light-filled, people-filled studio, with an avatar-instructor motivating you to keep going, represented by an instructor in the physical world.
What is “real” anymore?
Over the past few decades, the way we socialize has dramatically changed. Social media and our handheld devices have, in many ways, become an extension of our neocortex, and the social self.
To be successful in the 21st century in many ways consists of building a repertoire both physically (in-person), and virtually (via social media). Today, we express ourselves and our likes and dislikes through images, memes, words, Facebook pages, tweets, and YouTube Channels.
Society relies on us to put a part of our personalities “out there” through social media, and in turn, we rely on society to believe that it’s us.
Younger generations are often slapped with the social stigma of “spending too much time online”. Baby boomers and our parents generally tend to think that meaningful interactions are limited to physical interactions, or interaction with aspects of the physical world, like nature.
Of course, the key is balance. We need to be able to draw from the benefits of the digital world, while finding enough time to interact with people and to spend some time in nature, which by many studies has shown to decrease our levels of stress.
But what happens when software itself provides the balance we need?
What happens when we no longer socialize “on” social media platforms but “in” social media platforms?
What happens when we can pick and choose when we would like to enter an immersive virtual world that fully mimics a peaceful nature retreat?
How much more convenient and tempting would it be to do that, without having to deal with the physical and financial constraints of being able to access such an experience?
What if we could experience all of the benefits of physical social interaction (the tangible sensations, the rise in dopamine levels, the increases endorphin release) virtually?
What, then, becomes real?
Virtual Worlds: With or Without a Global Health Crisis
We’re now knee-deep in a global health pandemic that is forcing us to stay indoors.
Many of us can’t visit our elderly parents — with little clarity on when we will be able to see them next.
Yet we all know that we want to be with them: and we want them to feel like we are there, physically: like they’re not alone. In such a scenario, plugging into an immersive VR world would be largely beneficial. And I believe that regardless of how long the COVID crisis lasts, the fact that we’re in it in the first place might accelerate the development of mature VR technology.
But with or without a pandemic-infused future, virtual reality could take over the way we live and experience what is real.
As Professor Albert Merhabian discovered in the 1970s, we overwhelmingly deduce our feelings about what someone says not by the actual words spoken, but by the speaker’s body language and tone of voice.
According to him, non-verbal cues like vocal liking and facial expression account for over 90% of what a listener trusts, while literal words account for a mere 7%. Even if this is an exaggeration, the findings are a testament to the emphasis that we place on body language.
For many people, interacting with Avatars may seem like a dreary option — lackluster at best. How can we feel like we’re interacting with real people when they mimic cartoon icons?
Similarly, one VR user experienced a Billy Eilish concert powered by Oculus Venues, where the social experience of interacting with other users attending the concert was overwhelmingly positive and more mind-blowing than the actual concert itself.
The Immersive VR Self
Ray Schwartz and William Steptoe are lead researchers at Oculus.
In 2018, they published a paper in which they coined the term “The Immersive VR self”.
After experiencing one of the first Oculus demo’s that was designed to reproduce a 1-to-1 socially interaction, they said:
“The combination of high sense of body ownership with sense of presence (Slater 2009) resulted in this inquiry into the unique characteristics that construct the “Immersive VR Self” and the contribution that it has to the sense of “being there.”
As Schwartz and Steptoe discover, Avatars in immersive VR experiences are different from Avatars in prior existing non-virtual VR worlds.
In regular virtual worlds, the user would use regular inputs like a mouse and a keyboard to interact virtually. But in immersive VR worlds, the body movement it emits is immediately translated into a VR environment to mimic and create identical patterns of physical actions — online.
In an immersive world, the technology tracks a user’s body movement, and these displays drive our perceptual senses.
Visually, an immersive VR experience offers a 3D, 360-degree field of view. Furthermore, the audio feedback in immersive VR is spatial, based on the users head position in relation to the virtual audio source.
What this means is that you could have your headset on, jog on the spot in your living room, and your VR avatar would be moving in conjunction with your physical world movements, except through a forest trail built to enhance the running experience. You would be able to hear the sound of leaves crunching as you run “on” the virtual trail.
Consciously, you would feel like you’re running a 5K through a forest, whereas physically, you would be in your living room in, say, Dubai. More amazingly, you could be doing this with your Nike Running Club group of runners: all while chatting, interacting, and experiencing it just like you would physically.
What makes immersive VR so radically different from any other social interaction technology is that the result of an immersive VR experience, is “presence”:
“presence” is best described as a user’s psychological response to patterns of sensory stimuli, resulting in the user having the impression of “being there”, in a computer-generated space — Slater, Usoh and Steed, 1994
With mature VR technology, it could become difficult for us to determine which experience is more real: the virtual one, or the physical one. Ultimately, we might all be forced to question the very basis of consciousness itself. We may wonder: what constitutes a “full” conscious experience?
In some ways, social media is the playground of our present: but virtual reality could quite literally become the playground of our future.