The availability of VR devices is quickly growing as is evident by mass distribution to most major retailers. (Christian Aguilar/Lariat)
Arguably of the vast variety of inventions that humanity has created throughout history, there exists no such comparable invention that is as impactful, influential nor as important as the Internet. As the Internet evolves and changes over the course of time, we too, change with it and this is demonstrably an indication of the significant role the Internet plays within our lives. Concurrent to this theory is the notion that as a generation of people who are increasingly molded by our personal experiences online; so to are we adapting to new behaviors that are made manifest by the influence of support systems and niche social spaces.
In this way, it is evident that with the right set of circumstances, specific structures such as social class, race, gender, ability or wealth can be overlooked in interactions where otherwise they would act as inhibitors to empathy and comprehension. When we think of online social spaces, we are reminded of the popularity of sites such as Facebook, Myspace and Twitter. While these websites carry with them some variety of inherent flaw, they are still considered the most prominent methods that we currently have to communicate with each other. However, it should be said that while these contemporary behemoths of communication are as ubiquitous as the Internet itself.
In the beginning, the origins of online social interaction were far more simplistic, albeit perhaps more sincere in nature. We can trace the roots of these social spaces to as far back as the infancy of the Internet as evident primarily in the way that early adopters of the web found solace in hyper-specific forums. These forums were typically dedicated to fringe pop culture fan-bases and as such became a sort of gathering space for people to show appreciation of their specific interests.
Fast forward to the present and due largely to advances in technology, it is apparent that we are currently in the early stages of a new digital resurgence involving yet another emergent technology; VR or as it is more commonly known, Virtual Reality.
This renewed interest in Virtual Reality has introduced some very interesting dialogues into the conversation that is empathy in a digital space.
To preface, the goal of Virtual Reality has always been to provide an environment in which the individual can become engaged in a method that is entirely intuitive to the way we influence our actual surroundings. In this way, it is easily apparent as to why previous attempts were visibly flawed in execution. The loss of dexterity, the latency between input commands and a lack of applications that could support a realistic sense of scope and distance caused VR to fall to the wayside.
However, VR in its current form is substantially more responsive, aesthetically pleasing and is more accessible than ever before.
In an article in Wired, writer Peter Rubin extrapolates as to the potential for VR technology and the associated benefits of its continued development stating; “Beyond games and other interactive entertainment, VR shows promising applications for pain relief and PTSD, for education and design, for both telecommuting and office work.” While many different applications exist, one such application known as VRChat is proving to be the best advocate for why VR demands newfound scrutiny in our modern age.
VRChat in few words is a VR based platform that allows the user to coexist within a social space that is comprised of user-generated content. Users are encouraged to explore the various hubs that are created by other users much in the way that a person would explore a theme park. While in VRChat users are given the option to choose from any manner of avatar to represent themselves as they should see fit. With no restriction as to how a person may interact with others coupled with the ability to represent oneself with whatever the user prefers, it is obvious as to how VRChat is affecting the way we perceive existing social structures.
For example, the freedom to choose how one appears to others has the interesting effect of shifting expectations regarding initial encounters. When the pressure of fulfilling a pre-determined expectation is present, we tend to shy away from social interaction on the principle of being self-conscious or feeling inadequate. Ergo, when the idea of participating in an environment with little regard for consequence is entertained, we can observe that people are more willing to take chances and in turn they tend to lean heavily on the freedom the platform allows them.
However, since these expectations do not exist in VRChat; people are more eager to make connections and attempt to engage one another from a baser level of understanding.
In a Reddit post by user TheBadeand, the user describes their ongoing interactions with VRChat stating;
“I usually find myself on the outside of discussions, and don’t really feel like i’m part of the group. I suck at getting in touch with new people and can’t start or maintain a conversation if my life depends on it… So needless to say, VRChat didn’t really seem like the ideal game for me. But it seems i actually managed to crack the code yesterday.”
User TheBadeand goes on to specify the details of an encounter they had with a group of users wherein they had forgotten to unmute their microphone, thus disabling verbal communication.
TheBadeand notes “I think that’s an important key factor: Once you get in touch with people, they need something to remember you by. Because it’s not the first time I’ve talked with strangers in VRChat, but i still didn’t make friends. Until Yesterday. Because Yesterday, not only did i make friends, but i did so without saying a single word.”
Additionally due to the advancements in technology and the affordability of the interface, features such as full body tracking, voice activated commands and a focus on accessibility based improvements mean that VRChat is quickly becoming an environment that anyone can use.