My friend Gabe and I had just lost a game of dodgeball. As the winning team gloated on a pedestal above us, Gabe turned to me with open arms and offered a consolatory hug. I felt comforted by the friendly embrace.
None of this would be remarkable unless you consider that Gabe happened to be a green troll with a shaggy beard, I was a cheerful avatar with a pear for a head (not a pear-shaped head, but literally a pear with eyes and rosy cheeks), and our friend Chia Chin, gloating above us, was a badger shooting out a stream of confetti.
We’d been playing Smashbox Arena, a virtual reality game that Gabe and Chia Chin were developing and preparing to release. Gabe and I were located in different cities, and I was alone in my home office wearing an HTC Vive, a high-end virtual reality headset. Yet after playing the game for an hour, I felt as thought I’d been in the company of good friends. Days later, when I visited Gabe and Chia Chin at their office, we relived moments from the game as if they were real. And, in a way, they were.
The World Of Virtual Reality
Virtual reality provides opportunities to explore experiences that aren't otherwise accessible (or possible) in the real world. It provides a new way to connect with people through the convenience of the internet and the salience of face-to-face communication.
The first time I interacted with someone in VR, I reflected on what made the experience different than a video conference, and I kept coming back to a sense of shared presence: My friend and I inhabited a space together and interacted in a spontaneous, multidimensional fashion that I’d only ever experienced when being in the same room as someone else.
The Dark Side Of VR
Of course, with that shared presence comes vulnerability. Recently, a woman wrote an article that received national attention about getting groped during a social VR game. She expresses her frustration and disgust that she couldn’t play a multiplayer game for more than three minutes without getting groped, and says, “What's worse is that it felt real, violating. This sounds ludicrous to anyone who hasn't stood on that virtual reality ledge and looked down, but if you have, you might start to understand.”
Along with the opportunities VR presents for human connection and shared experience, there are dangers to consider. In addition to the user experience and technical challenges, there are fascinating ethical questions to answer. What happens over the next few years will establish the precedent for the next wave of computing.
Our Virtual Future
VR pioneers are rapidly expanding the boundaries of this exciting medium, and I have no doubt that it will touch many parts of our daily lives within the next decade. We’ll see some incredible new games released, but beyond entertainment, we’ll see education, medicine and business transformed.
I’m looking forward to moving beyond playing games with friends to starting to explore new virtual space with people from all over the world. As the hardware becomes more accessible, we’ll be able to engage in conversations and shared experiences with people from all walks of life. Once it becomes easier for users to generate content, we’ll be able to build our own stories in VR and share the cultural events and everyday occurrences happening in our communities.
I think there’s reason to hope that, in that widespread transformation, we’ll find ways to help people connect with others through different shared experiences and perspectives. We’ll create opportunities to engage in nuanced dialogue — the kind that’s nearly impossible in a comment thread or a tweet. We’ll design for people from diverse communities and backgrounds, not just a select few. And finally, we’ll build technology that not only makes us more efficient, but more human.
In order to achieve that vision, we need entrepreneurs from a wide variety of backgrounds to explore the possibilities. Games are a great starting point, but there are opportunities for every type of business to start experimenting with the tools that exist today and innovating in unexpected ways. I for one am eager to see more voices contributing to VR and bringing the richness that diverse perspectives provide.
My hometown of Seattle has an organized, rapidly growing VR community that hosts meetups. For cities without these resources, there's an opportunity to plug into virtual communities to engage from afar. Regardless of industry or location, investing time in learning about VR will be a necessity for entrepreneurs interested in pushing past the boundaries of what we currently consider possible -- and unlocking opportunity we cannot yet imagine.