A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post comparing Social VR with video calling as methods for keeping in touch and working during lockdown.
VR vs Video Conferencing
I’m writing this a couple of weeks in to the UK’s lockdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. This is my first chance to take a…
Since then we had a class in Altspace for our Masters in Virtual and Augmented Reality. It was nice to get a chance to use VR for teaching. One interesting feature was that, because we were in a public room we were joined by a number of members of the public, who made some nice additions to the conversation. We ended with a discussion of Social VR and what benefits it has during the COVID-19 lockdown. I thought it would be nice to supplement my previous article by summarising the key points of the conversation.
One of the benefits that I mention in my previous article is that you can use space in natural ways in a social interaction, and many of the participants also brought this up. We can position ourselves relative to other people in many different ways depending on our context, and VR allows us to do this. For example, at the start of the class Sylvia gave a talk. She stood at the front and everyone faced towards her, being the “audience”, just like a real lecture. On the other hand, when we had an open discussion we reformed the group, standing around in a circle, again like a more informal real world conversation. We didn’t end up using break-out groups, but we could have done so by having people move to different parts of the room. In fact, this was a more flexible and natural use of space that we can normally use in a standard lecture theatre!
“I don’t have to do my hair”
Another theme was that, while you are visible and present in the world, no one can see your real world self. Being represented as a avatar gives a bit of privacy, that hides your real environment and it doesn’t matter if you are in your pyjamas and haven’t done your hair.
One participant made a related point. He said that he is quite socially anxious and the simplified avatar representations made interacting with others, particularly strangers, less stressful. A VR avatar has, in some ways, much less in the way of body language and facial expression cues than a video. I often think of this as a disadvantage, but it could make social interaction less stressful.
This relates to a point by Jeremy Bailenson that I talked about in the last post. He suggested that zoom meetings are tiring because we are faced with a wall of other people all looking straight at us (even if they aren’t actually looking at our picture). This intense social connection can be stressful and exhausting. Being represented by an avatar can help reduce this anxiety and make meetings and other social situations easier for many people.
There are also technical benefits to VR. The amount of data transmitted is small compared to a video meeting. You only have to send audio and the position and rotation of three points: head and hands. This means that social VR can be more stable than video calling, I’ve rarely seen the breaking up of speech that is common on a video meeting.
Also, it makes it possible to have much larger events, with many people, each of whom only taking up a small amount of bandwidth. This is helped by the spatial aspect of VR. It is pretty much impossible to manage a 100 person video meeting except by having a single person give a lecture. In VR, on the other hand, people can come together for smaller conversations, creating their own groups within a larger event, just as we would in a big concert. I don’t know for sure that the platforms do this, but it would be possible to use people’s positions for level of detail: only transmitting full data about the people close to you and so saving a lot of bandwidth. That might explain how big events can work effectively in social VR without slowdown or instability.
Stuff to do
One drawback of video calls for socialising is that there isn’t much to do. My kids find this when they have video play dates, it can be boring because they can’t play with their friends, just talk (they have since moved over to Minecraft).
The social VR platforms can hold our interest a lot more. We can have meetings in engaging environments that are more appealing and interesting that everyone’s kitchen. More importantly AltSpace and particularly Rec Room include mini-games to play that you can play together with friends. Seeing friends doesn’t have to be like a work meeting, you can go bowling!
The final point is that in Social VR you are completely focused. You are immersed in the virtual world and all distractions are blocked out. This is quite refreshing given the epidemic of distraction we are having due to constant smart phone access and social media.
In a video call we might be half listening while working on an email and checking Facebook. In VR we can’t do that and we have to focus on the people in front of us. This like likely to create strong social connections and might just be a healthier way to interact with others.
Is VR what we need in Lockdown?
These were the main points that we came up with in our class discussion. They show a lot of reasons that social VR can be a great way of maintaining social contact in lockdown.
Having said that, I should admit that we were a self selecting group of VR enthusiasts, so we probably focused more on the benefits than the problems. I certainly think that nausea might be an issue for long sessions.
But it still makes me hopeful for social VR. It’s a shame that so few people have access to VR at this moment when it could be a great way of keeping connected (the oculus quest seems to be constantly sold out). But for those of us who can, it is a fantastic way of safely stepping out of our quarantine. I, for one, am definitely inviting friends to virtual bowling!
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.