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It seems like nearly every major technology company is now touting its version of virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality. And, when you layer in social networking – which is what Facebook is trying to do – that’s when things really get weird.
There are now four major VR social networks – vTime, Altspace VR, Bigscreen and Rec Room – where you can have social experiences in virtual reality. Unlike the social networking experiences you have in flat, 2D space (i.e. your computer screen), these new VR social networks feature three-dimensional avatars that interact with each other in 3D once you put on a VR headset.
How virtual social networks blur our sense of reality
This leads to a number of disorienting features. One of these is an entirely new way of “friending” someone –instead of sending out a “friend request,” you literally fist bump or shake hands with someone in a virtual world. Sometimes, in order to get access to a VIP room in a VR world, you have to do this.
Another disorienting feature is that everyone is a cartoon-like avatar. And, that is where you really start to lose your sense of reality. If you are a young and male in the real world, there’s no rule that you have to be young and male in the virtual world. In fact, there are no rules at all. In one of the promotional videos for vTime, one avatar looks just like Abraham Lincoln.
And, blurring the sense of reality even further, you can choose to meet in any location in or out of this world. You can choose to meet up with other avatars at a lovely rooftop restaurant with a view of the Eiffel Tower in Paris – or on a space station orbiting the Earth. You can even meet underwater, if that’s what you decide.
Is this good or bad for the human race?
It’s easy to see how all this persona-shifting, time-shifting and place-shifting in virtual reality could lead to some very unique problems. For example, just as there are problems with harassment in the real world, there are problems with harassment in the virtual world. In other words, my virtual avatar might decide to grope your virtual avatar.
Or, my virtual avatar might say things in the virtual world that it would never say in the real world. (Don’t laugh — it happens all the time in the real world, where nice, morally upstanding people turn into vicious trolls once they’re online.)
On the surface, then, you might say that all this is bad for the human race. If you think people are confused about gender and race now – just wait until they can change their gender or race with a press of a button. And it’s possible to imagine a future in which people would rather spend time in the virtual world than in the real world, turning into a new type of (virtual) couch potato.
VR as an “empathy machine”
However, there is something about virtual reality that makes it truly unique –and that is the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. People in the VR world refer to virtual reality as an “empathy machine” and for good reason. You can experience what it is like to be a migrant escaping from a repressive regime. You can learn what it is like to be in the middle of a war zone.
With VR, you can hang out with anyone in the world in a place of your choosing to hear what they have to say. And you can literally reach out and touch them. And that is what might bring the world closer together.