Since late 2016 as I was pursuing a master’s degree, I have been working towards research in Social VR with regards to design and sociolinguistics. My study soon enabled me to speak knowledgably on the topic of Social VR in several conferences and venues local to Istanbul. Some of these talks were just introductions, but some were also based in creativity, identity and, on a dark note, harassment. While talking with university alumni and conference attendees, I would sometimes be asked why I have such enthusiasm for Social VR and I answered with examples of the potential for personal connection. In the present, many people suffering from social anxiety could learn how to meaningfully communicate in low stakes environments and overcome their afflictions. Friends and family who are geographically divided could meet in a shared space and interact physically, enjoying a sense of presence that’s otherwise denied them. Moreover, if humanity dedicated itself to space exploration in the distant future, individuals would have a venue for meeting. However, if the world were to undergo ecological disaster and people needed to shield themselves from the outside world, they would still have a digital space in which to do it. What, in retrospect, I should have been talking about is a pandemic that forces everyone indoors in the immediate future.
Before talking about Social VR, a few things must be said about the virus. The Coronavirus is an unmitigated disaster at a global scale that is costing nearly everyone on earth. More generally, we have lost our absolute freedom of movement while others are increasingly losing loved ones or their own health. That isn’t to mention the economic costs to individual workers — specifically the service industry — who no longer have a means of supporting themselves while governments haggle over just how much aid they should give. In the near term, this is a disaster in every way and it’s a disservice to we who suffer the most to consider it otherwise. I have heard some brightside-ing from some voices in social media, but they simply haven’t suffered enough yet. More upsetting is some of the opportunism I’ve heard from a few voices in tech who expect to be the benefactors of increased capital in the ‘attention economy’ and I suggest they be very cautious in how they handle promotion in light of the COVID-19.
By its nature, Social VR has a valuable service to offer the world and the ideal reaction of the moment is to be humbled. We are social creatures who have an innate need to be present with others, whether they be family, friends, or even strangers (a.k.a. friends we haven’t met yet). The human mind gets muddled by a limited set of stimuli, so we psychologically benefit from seeing new places and having novel experiences. In particular, Rec Room is an ideal platform for distraction through gaming and quests while also forcing us to move our bodies around — which is also desperately needed; VR Chat is great for discovering new environments populated with a variety of characters; AltspaceVR has users who seem always ready for a good conversation; Orbus VR offers an alternate self and a sense of adventure through fantasy role play; Bigscreen allows you to watch Netflix with friends/family with whom you’ll be separated for an indefinite time. In short, people who have access to a VR headset should take advantage this portal to a digital reality, where we’re free to play, talk, and even shake hands without fear of contamination.
Though Social VR finds itself in a position to offer a vast public good. It’s also in an awkward position in terms of hardware since there remains a divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. If you don’t yet have a headset at home, there are a reduced number of options for getting one due to accessibility and the high price. As of writing, the Oculus Quest, Valve Index, and perhaps others are backordered for an indefinite period and it’s unlikely that placing an order now will benefit you much through the current quarantine. Still, you can try your luck with Amazon or eBay but, for everyone’s sake, don’t go out shopping around. The greater problem might be the cost in money since the pandemic has put so many people in a financial pinch, where they have to think about their first-order needs like groceries and rent before thinking about a digital social life. People suffering these setbacks should know that at least Rec Room, VR Chat, and Altspace VR have desktop versions of their platforms, where VR and desktop users are allowed to mingle and interact freely. At the very least, you’ll be able to meet new people in a wide variety of environments and, when the rough times pass, you’ll be familiar with these virtual platforms and be able to return as a VR user. Even if you’re reluctant to try the new platforms, you can dust off your Second Life profile and invest some time and energy into your existence there.
COVID-19 is an unfolding tragedy and we all hope that it isn’t enduring. Regardless, it’s important not to neglect your social life — remember Netflix is not your friend. If you can be present with others digitally, you should do so but, at the very least, you need to speak to others using your actual vocal cavity, not just through thumb taps and selfies. It’s easy to get discouraged when you feel alone, but at least it’s 2020 and we have the means to connect virtually, reminding ourselves that we’re all in this together.