Will Family Members Be Alone Together In XR?

Will Family Members Be Alone Together In XR?
April 22, 2019

Fascinating tweet last night from the CEO of Magic Leap Rony Abovitz, which now has well over $2 billion in funding to bring augmented reality to the mass market; in it, Abovitz sketches out a future when AR has become mainstream:


In a family setting: one person may use a Magic Leap One to watch movies (giant screens, no atoms); another may play experiential games (like Dr. G), another may learn how to code (Unreal, Unity), and another may start building the volumetric internet with Helio.


Which strikes me as a fascinating vision for the future. Abovitz may well be right -- and in a decade or so, it's likely that the price of AR headsets will come down enough that each member of a middle class family could feasibly own a pair. But I suspect this forecast makes a common but false assumption that many technologists make: Assessing the value of a product only by its technical features, while not giving any consideration to how the product might change the social dynamics of its users.


Because direct eye contact, especially among close friends, lovers, and family members, seems to be a deeply ingrained human need or reflex:


Our sensitivity to eye contact begins incredibly early. Infants of just two days of age prefer looking at faces that gaze back at them... Whether or not other people make eye contact with us changes the way that we think about them and their feelings. For example, we are more likely to remember faces with which we’ve experienced mutual gaze, and we consider displays of anger and joy to be more intense when shown by a person making eye contact. In fact, when a person or human-like entity (such as a human face morphed with a doll) makes eye contact with us, we assume that he/she/it has a more sophisticated mind and a greater ability to act in the world, such as to show self-control and act morally, and a greater desire for social contact.


That's quite a lot to override with a new technology. And of course, it's true that we spend far too much of our time on the digital devices we have now. But that brings up another feature, best expressed in visual terms:

While mobile device fixation is a genuine problem for many reasons, it's also created a new, beneficial kind of socialization: It enables us to easily share and consume what we care about with each other, at the same time, physically together. We generally share what's on our devices on a regular basis only with our closest friends and family, because the very act of sharing is so intimate: We cozy up and lean our heads together, and watch our expressions change by what we're seeing.


So really, whether Abovitz is right depends on whether you -- and the mass consumer base as a whole -- find the image at right far more appealing than the one on the left. Do you? 

None of which is to say AR/VR is born to fail -- as I've written frequently elsewhere, it's a great technology for use cases where full immersion is extremely important (therapy, education, etc.), or for short bursts of casual entertainment and long distance socialization. But the tweet reminds me of the observation game designer Warren Spector made years ago


"The challenges I don't hear being addressed at all (or without appropriate seriousness) are cultural and social. Problems abound, but the big one I see are the isolating effect of simply wearing a headset."


Four years and many billions of dollars later, that still seems to be the case.

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