VR is set to be a lonely place if we don't get social right

Let's all have a panic party
Don't let VR and AR make us lonely
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The two most common reactions I get when my non-tech industry friends try VR for the first time are 1) wow, this is amazing, imagine playing Halo in this, is there any porn? and 2) wow, this is scary, people are going to get addicted and spend all their time in these things.

The twin industries of virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality have to do more than just figure out how to build gadgets and experiences that people will pay for. There's also a responsibility to make sure this new generation of technology doesn't destroy our human relationships and leave us all plugged into solitary simulations. (Which incidentally is what Elon Musk believes our world probably is).

Society in the developed world is already becoming more and more atomised: in the UK, one in 10 people surveyed by the charity Relate said they do not have a single close friend and in Japan as many as one million young people, mostly men, seek extreme isolation and social withdrawal, a phenomenon known as Hikikomori.

Transporting people to a virtual environment in which they can only see and hear, and are pushed towards conversations with AI bots, may accelerate this trend of isolation. This could be solved by augmented and mixed reality tech like HoloLens and Magic Leap, which keeps the wearer rooted in the real world. Still, I find it difficult to concentrate when my phone screen lights up, never mind a heads-up display.

When I have my dystopia tinted glasses on, I think of the moment in Pixar's WALL-E when a woman aboard the Axiom spaceship only realises it has a pool when the robot knocks her off her hoverchair, complete with an AR-style display. She also rolls around before bumping into, and then talking to, a fellow passenger in a space age meet-cute. It's the equivalent of a warning sign in flashing neon lights, but I'm hopeful that we don't have to end up like that. There's still time.

Experiments are go

So is it possible to enjoy this new wave of entertainment, health, sports and industry opportunities without damaging our ability to make and maintain relationships?

What's needed are social and multiplayer features, both local and remote, built into the platforms but also new ways of thinking around social etiquette. As VR headsets are already on sale, there have been more solutions thrown around than for AR: maybe VR theme park spaces are the answer? Or party games? Or nerdy, streamed tournaments? (see box out).

This week, Google's Daydream Labs shared some early experiments in social for its new mobile VR platform. They focus on creating shared presence between two or more users, anywhere in the world, and include spatially located voice, shared goals for multiplayer experiences and playing with avatar height (an important social cue) to encourage friendly interactions.

In terms of etiquette, in the workplace, on commutes and on the streets, perhaps we will take our cues from headphones which generally signal 'do not disturb' unless it's something important but are also quickly removable. Being yanked out of a VR world by just lifting up the headset is unpleasant so there's still some work to be done around this; AR doesn't suffer quite so much from this problem.

I'm not saying there's isn't a place for powerful, intimate, solitary VR experiences either, something that Oculus Story Studio director Saschka Unseld has defended in the past. Equally, when we begin using technology like Magic Leap to reimagine how our work and life productivity is conducted, we don't want the world peeking into our emails and shopping.

Design studio Artefact has also come up with some intriguing concepts around this space - one is a VR hoodie for a private gaming experience and the other has a sharing mode for friends' phones and other external screens, including one on the front of the headgear itself.

Let's pop our utopian specs on for a sec. There is, of course, the prospect of VR and AR actually enhancing relationships; whether that's bringing facial expressions and emotional interactions to Second Life users via Project Sansar or experiments to help astronauts feel less lonely on long missions to Mars which could also be applied to long term patients or the military.

Oculus founder Palmer Luckey boasted that VR will allow those of us who can't afford to travel to exotic locations and landmarks in this reality, the chance to do so in virtual reality.

Similarly, many people, who perhaps suffer from a physical disability or anxiety, will soon be able to use this tech to interact with other humans in a way that's more personal than instant messages and the occasional emoji. For some, VR could ultimately become the most social spot around.