The spaces in the world around us are defined by the creatures that inhabit them. Humans have crafted civilizations shaped around each other’s needs and presence in the world for centuries. We have environments that manifest as physical buildings, streets, access to nature, as well as ways to escape our reality through art and travel. In the future, the social VR world could be governed by rules that address the same human needs without the constraints of the physical world.
VR environments could be flexible and infinitely expansive to support as many inhabitants as we’d like. We have the unique opportunity to reject notions of rigidity and instead focus on flexibility and adaptability to create an experience that takes our natural impulses and elevates them to their most altruistic form.
A social VR space could take into account the participants in it: if a single person is in a VR space, they shouldn’t feel lonely. In that case, the space can be optimized to fulfill the needs of a single person and restrain from showing affordances for more than one participant. The activities people can do while alone can be customized to them and their interests. The moment two or more people inhabit a space together, it can adjust itself to support their new inhabitants.
The environment can physically change and the notion of shared activities can be introduced. The activities in the space are then organized to fulfill the needs of not only two people but those *specific* two people, given what the virtual world knows about them. Mutual interests and commonalities take priority to facilitate interactions among them, unless there are compelling experiences that can come out of the participants’ differences. This makes the space a participant in it of itself; since every participant is different, they become ingredients to experiences that will always be unique.
VR has the potential to create environments that unleash the intersection of our commonalities and our differences.
One of the things that makes living so meaningful is that it’s defined by the combination of all of our experiences, which can be unpredictable and rich in diversity. VR has the potential to fulfill that promise to an even higher degree by creating environments that unleash the way our commonalities and differences interact with each other.
In addition, the environment could be designed in a way that is malleable enough to honor both private and social needs. There could be a concept of privacy and access to personal information, even in social spaces. Practically, this means that the browsing mechanism, activities, and tools available to play in VR can adapt based on the number of participants in a session.
In the social VR space, we could miss on a big opportunity if we attempt to replicate mobile and web interactions — these are already abstracted solutions of real world needs. There is an argument to be made that these are familiar concepts that may be necessary as we transition into new modes of reality. However, these concepts are only useful if they build up to a step change that justifies the medium. Some could argue that we needed to start from skeuomorphism in order to get to responsive design. However, with every step we must gain an increasingly deeper understanding of what’s possible in the medium that was impossible in the previous one. Instead, we could address the real, human needs that drive us to get together —the same needs that inform solutions which manifest themselves as a bar, a movie theater, or a basketball court in the real world— and address them in a virtual context. A context that has the freedom to explore solutions devoid of the laws of physics.
A really high fidelity telepresence experience doesn’t seem to be enough to justify VR. Social VR could aim to innovate real social experiences, not just emulate them at a distance. As we think about these interactions, we could focus our energy in digging into the motivations behind the needs that drive us to be social —the human experience— and explore how to satisfy those same motivations in VR using a vernacular native to what this new reality can do.
How can we gain a deeper understanding of real-life social needs (not solutions) and find what’s unique to VR that allows us to provide a better solution than real life?