I’ve had a hard time getting comfortable with the term “virtual reality”. Most people’s mental model of VR contains too much sci-fi, dystopian future baggage. VR technology is often branded as isolating, gamers-only, and a gateway to a future of blind-folded zombies. Since the term VR is here to stay, I want to paint a picture of VR beyond the stereotype and posit that rather than isolating, VR is going to be the most unifying communications medium that’s ever existed. Rather than pulling us further apart, VR is going to bring us closer together.
VR is Going to Bring us Closer Together
Transitions in communications technologies have been met with skepticism throughout history. Plato worried that moving from oral to written history would inhibit our reasoning abilities and Thoreau thought communications by telegraph would be too mundane to matter. Images of seas of people with black boxes strapped to their heads do little to help counter the perception that VR is a tool for escape from others.
Despite that skepticism we have constantly innovated on faster and richer ways to communicate. Sharing experiences with friends, loved ones and colleagues is one of the most emotionally rewarding parts of life. So even while we fear that new technology may disconnect us, we have continued to strive for, and find, deeper ways to connect.
VR is worth a Thousand Words
Let’s talk about what we mean when we say, “VR is a communications medium”. Think of a spectrum representing ways we communicate. On one end let’s put “sending a letter,” and on the other let’s put “being together in person.” We would all agree that writing a letter is dramatically different than talking in person, but specifically, what do we gain by being together?
- Non-verbal communication: We point, gesture, talk with our hands, lean towards or away from each other, fold our arms, cross our legs, make eye contact and hear each other in directional, binaural audio
- Personal space: We are intimately aware of the distance between us and others, and this distance, or closeness, makes us feel emotionally connected
- Interactivity: When we’re in the same place, we can simultaneously interact with our environment – I can hand you something, show you something, or move something and you’ll notice
- Synchronousness: In the same room we can banter back and forth with no delay.
As we move across the spectrum, we gain more of the characteristics of being together and communication becomes more natural and interactive. Moving from a letter to a text message, for example, makes the experience more synchronous. Going from a text to a phone call makes the interaction close to synchronous and adds tone of voice, an important nonverbal cue. Adding video yields facial expressions and some body language.
The chasm between a video call and being in the same room together is vast, however. We’re missing eye contact, gestures, any sense of personal space, and have very limited interactivity. Video chat, the most technologically advanced electronic communication medium available to most people, falls dramatically short of the experience of being in the same room together.
Group communications are particularly challenging. For example, five people in a conference room can have two different conversations simultaneously. Five people on a video chat can definitely not. People in a conference room can draw on a whiteboard, play a game of cards, or play catch. People on a video chat can sort of do some of these things. People in a room together can make eye contact; lack of eye contact is one of the most frustrating parts of video chat.
Of course these electronic media are incredibly convenient to use. There is no need to sit in traffic or get on an airplane to video chat or voice call. You can instantly connect with almost anyone in world with a marginal cost of close to zero. For those of us that can remember a time when “long distance charges” represented a substantial portion of our personal expenses, the freedom that comes from modern electronic communication has been revolutionary.
On the spectrum of communications, VR is somewhere between video chat and being in the same room. In AltspaceVR, communication is more natural than on a video chat – we feel a sense of physical space, we can make eye contact and gesture at things to communicate non-verbally. We hear each other from where we are in the virtual room, making multiperson interactions easier. We can interact with things – physical objects, videos, images – giving us that context of communication that we have when we are together. And now, with VR Call, we can easily connect instantly in VR with anyone around the world.
People in the VR industry like to talk about ‘presence’, or the feeling that in VR, you are in another place. What we believe will be even more transformative is the feeling that you are with another person. Even with the very best video conferencing technology, it is extraordinarily rare for people to feel as if they are truly together, yet in VR this feeling is common.
One of our users described meeting his long-distance girlfriend in VR: “Like a good night out or a solid vacation, VR gave us something to mutually experience and reflect upon. It was superior, in that respect, to video chatting. We had silly moments to laugh about, friends to reference, and a strange new world to ponder the ramifications of.”
Why VR will be Used Primarily for Communication
Like most people in this industry, I’ve read quite a few VR sci-fi books – it’s amazing to imagine a million people in an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game), but I think it’s much more likely we’ll use VR to communicate with our friends and family. Taking it a step further, we think IF VR will be used by hundreds of millions of people, THEN the primary use case for those people will be communication.
If you haven’t had the experience of connecting in virtual reality with your friends, family or loved ones, you really should do it. It’s dramatically different than any other way you communicate with them. The sense that the person you love is standing right there in front of you when they may be thousands of miles away is a feeling you will never forget.
About the Author
Eric Romo is co-founder and CEO of AltspaceVR, a software company building the social platform for virtual reality. Prior to AltspaceVR, Eric was Founder of GreenVolts, and was the 13th employee at SpaceX. Eric graduated from Cooper Union with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and earned a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering and an MBA from Stanford University.