Technology and power differences in social VR

Marco Gillies
Apr 20, 2020 · 5 min read
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In my last post I talked about Social VR and mentioned an important paper by Mel Slater, Anthony Steed and colleagues, called Small-Group Behavior in a Virtual and Real Environment: A Comparative Study. I thought I should talk about it in a bit more detail as it has important implications for current Social VR.

The paper was published in 2000, making it about 20 years old (but that means the research was done even earlier). This is a reminder that VR research has been happening for a long time (this is far from being their first paper), and that this older research is still very relevant as we are only just starting to put some of the technologies from that era into widespread practice.

Small Group Behaviour

The paper describes an experiment in small group interaction in VR. Three participants at a time were immersed in a social VR experience where they had perform a task together. They had to find words put on signs on the walls and work out what phrase they made.

After completing the task in VR, they met in the real world and performed a similar task. They also filled out several questionnaires about the experience and were interviewed, I’ll talk about a few which I think are particularly important and relevant now.

Presence is correlated with co-presence

Presence is one of the most important concepts in VR, the sense of being in a virtual environment rather than in the real world. The researchers measured this with a questionnaire, but they also used a different questionnaire to measure something called co-presence, the sense of being with another person that is not physically there. As social VR becomes more important we need to be thinking about co-presence more.

Interestingly they found that participants’ ratings of presence and co-presence were correlated. This suggests that the better a social VR environment is at creating presence, the better it will be socially. Or, since it is a correlation and we don’t know which causes the other, a strong sense of social connection might increase our overall sense of presence (or maybe it is a bit of both, they reinforce each other).

Asymmetric Social VR

Importantly, the participants did not have the same hardware set up. One of them had a (2000 style) fully immersive VR head mounted display (HMD), while the other two joined the session via a standard desktop computer screen.

This creates an asymmetric social environment because different participants experience it in different ways. This is an important issue at the moment. While VR headsets are becoming cheaper and more common (definitely relative to y2000!), lots of people still don’t have them (particularly as they seem to be permanently sold out at the moment). Also, they can be uncomfortable for some people to wear for long periods (for example a colleague has neck pain and finds it difficult to wear an HMD). The ability to join via a standard desktop/laptop screen can open up social VR spaces to a lot of people.

This would be great, if joining via VR and desktop are the same, but what if they aren’t? It is important to understanding the impacts. Unfortunately, Slater, Steed et al. found that it did have a big impact on the social dynamics.

They asked participants to rate their other group members in terms of how much they displayed leadership of the group. The person using the HMD came out much higher than the other two, a difference that disappeared when they met in real life. This is probably because they were able to move around more naturally and had the benefit of hand and head gestures. This implies that asymmetric social VR can severely impact the way groups work in VR. To state it explicitly, people who cannot afford HMDs or with disabilities that mean they cannot use them, will end up having lower status roles in Social VR experiences. This is an important issue that we need to understand and mitigated as Social VR gets used more and more.

Social VR ettiquette

Another interesting result of the paper was how people felt about their avatars and those of other people, and in particular how they respected them socially.

In this VR world, like make others, it is possible to walk through the avatars of other people. Participants had different responses to this. Some felt that it was okay to do, because they weren’t real bodies, but most felt uncomfortable doing so. Some felt it was ‘rude’ to do so or felt the need to apologise.

This is a first intimation of the need to develop a new ‘etiquette’ of social VR. How do we treat other people’s avatars? The very fact that not everyone agreed suggests the need for such an etiquette. The invasion of ‘personal avatar space’ can easily happen by accident as we are not familiar with navigation techniques, but it can feel invasive and possibly be a form of sexual harassment. How we treat avatar bodies will be important, and will probably mirror the social etiquette of space in the real world (respecting personal space). We are already seeing social VR platforms respond to this issue. For example, AltspaceVR has a feature that lets you create a ‘bubble’ that hides any avatar that gets too close to you.

Understanding Social VR

As social VR becomes an important medium of communication, it is important to understand it: how technology affects power dynamics and what social etiquettes are needed. This 20 year old paper is an example of the decades of research in this area that new VR developers need to rediscover so they can make sure their social experiences are successful and don’t fall into pitfalls with potentially serious negative consequences.

This is part of a blog I have started to support learners on our Virtual Reality MOOC, if you want to learn more about VR, that is a good place to start. If you want to go into more depth, you might be interested in our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality at Goldsmiths’ University of London.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera…

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

Marco Gillies

Written by

Virtual Reality and AI researcher and educator at Goldsmiths, University of London and co-developer of the VR and ML for ALL MOOCs on Coursera.

Virtual Reality MOOC

A blog about virtual reality tied to our Coursera Specialisation on VR

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