Once the domain of online gamers, virtual reality is gaining traction across a number of industries as its application expands. As the technology refines and becomes more widespread, VR has the potential to change how we relate to each other. That’s the focus of a new book by Peter Rubin titled Future Presence: How Virtual Reality Is Changing Human Connection, Intimacy and the Limits of Ordinary Life. Rubin, an editor at Wired who oversees the magazine’s digital platforms and culture coverage, joined the Knowledge at Wharton show, which airs on SiriusXM channel 111, to talk about the book.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do enough people understand the role that virtual reality is playing now and in the future?
Peter Rubin: A lot of hay has been made of its business and enterprise applications. The conversation around VR on the cultural side has always been about its unique ability to create empathy in people by experiencing someone else’s life. The argument is you have a new perspective and you’re able to move through the world as a better person, and that is true.
But I also thought that, based on what I’ve been experiencing and what I’ve been reporting for the past five years, it doesn’t quite go far enough. Rather than being a clinical insight into another person’s experience, it forges these incredible emotional connections by the social dynamics that happen when you’re in VR with other people. The central argument of the book is the idea that empathy doesn’t go quite far enough and VR’s true magic is the ability to induce intimacy between people.
Knowledge at Wharton: We’ve seen for years how VR provides a connection to others in the gaming world. How do you see that connection spreading in the next several years?
Rubin: The social experiences that are built on some sort of recognizable game format are some of the early leaders in this. But the most remarkable stuff that’s happening, the most ambitious multi-user VR world, leaves gaming behind.
They give the user the ability to create worlds of their own. By combining a user’s creativity, the ability to create the characters and the ability to share these experiences, you’re turning VR from a novelty — where you go and do one marvelous thing, then you go do this other marvelous thing, and they’re all by yourself — into something that is more of a substrate.
“VR’s true magic is the ability to induce intimacy between people.”
It’s not the experience itself, it’s the background for the experience. There are worlds like Rec Room and VR Chat and Hi Fidelity and Altspace. These are places that have really fervent user bases. We’re not in the millions of users, but we are in the thousands of users. And we are already in the age where there are communities springing up, and friendships, romances and even marriages have resulted from these worlds.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is VR the next generation of social media?
Rubin: That is absolutely beginning to happen. Even companies like Facebook are jumping into this world. You can look at Spaces, which is Facebook’s first stab at a social VR environment, as almost being Facebook 1.5 in the sense that it leverages the cultural ubiquity that Facebook has and our choice as users to store our photos, our friendships and our relationships on there. So, it reconnects people that we’re already Facebook friends with, but it does so in what is called an embodied way, meaning that when we’re in VR as ourselves, we’re not just a disembodied camera. You can communicate with people in all kinds of ways including nonverbal cues, which have never been a part of any sort of mediated digital social communication before.
Knowledge at Wharton: Intimacy is part of your book title. Can you talk about that?
Rubin: A chief ingredient of the intimacy [fostered] in virtual reality begins with the fact that you can have eye contact. As eye tracking gets into headsets in the next year or so, we will have the ability to have our gaze mirrored in virtual reality, everything from blinks to winks to where we are actually looking. We can already make eye contact with people, but when you bring in even more naturalistic cues, that creates the ability to turn what happens in VR into something that’s much more like real life.
It’s not like looking at a photo. It’s not like anything we’ve ever experienced before. If you have a real-life memory of something you’ve done in VR in a fantastic environment — whether it’s something as pedestrian as being under a starry sky, or you’re on the surface of Mars, or you’re floating over Central Park — your memory is still spending quality time with this other person or these other people in this magical place.
It’s probably no surprise that the adult [entertainment] industry has taken note of VR and is creating a lot of content to leverage VR’s particular traits. You are seeing this completely unprecedented revolution in how they’re thinking about people’s fantasies.
Knowledge at Wharton: How will VR change the concept of memory?
Rubin: It helps people with memory issues much in the way that VR’s therapeutic applications hinge on the ability to do exercises again and again. That’s why it’s such a wonderful sports training tool. That’s why it’s so good for PTSD and phobia therapy.
“A chief ingredient of the intimacy [fostered] in virtual reality begins with the fact that you can have eye contact.”
In one study that was done in Germany about 18 months ago, they showed people GoPro footage of a motorcycle ride through the countryside. They showed half of the people the footage on a giant TV in front of them, and they showed the other half the footage in a VR headset and had those people put their hands on motorcycle handlebars. What they found in memory tests after that is not just that the people in VR performed better on identifying what photos were taken from the ride, but the people who had done this in VR took a tick longer to answer.
That tells us that where they were accessing the memories from took a tiny bit longer and is consistent with the idea that the VR memories were stored in the same place and accessed in the same way by the brain as memories we have in real life. It’s not like looking at a photo at all.
Knowledge at Wharton: From a psychological perspective, can VR help people who are introverted or have social phobias?
Rubin: Yes. Twenty or 30 years ago, we thought of the internet as a thing that would help people come out their shells and find communities. That’s certainly happening, but those benefits are amplified in VR. Some of that is because virtual reality finds the middle ground between the absolute anonymity that people have on the internet and the kind of slow road to disclosure and intimacy that we have in real life. Obviously, it takes people a long time to feel comfortable around each other in real life. But when they do, their true (personality) comes out and you confide in people and know what real closeness feels like.
On the internet, if you’re completely anonymous, a lot of people feel emboldened to disclose everything to strangers. But then when you meet in real life, the person that you meet may have nothing to do with the mental image that you’ve built up. When you’re on the internet, you’re almost a character. You curate the self that you give to other people.
What happens in VR is this remarkable middle ground where, because your rational brain is telling you that you’re someplace where the stakes are lower and it doesn’t matter, you feel a little more confident than you might otherwise. But your real self comes through because your hands are tracked and your head is tracked and your mannerisms really come out and the nonverbal cues really come out. For the people who have become close friends in VR and then meet in real life, there’s none of that awkwardness because you know that person.
Knowledge at Wharton: What are the pitfalls of connecting socially through VR?
Rubin: There are two areas that I think we need to get in front of. Some of it is already happening, and some haven’t reared its head yet. The one that we’ve already seen in multi-user VR is harassment and toxic behavior. When someone lobs a slur at someone else on Twitter or is cruel to them in an Instagram comment or yells at them when they’re playing an XBox game together online, those are harmful and they’re hurtful.
But they’re so much more visceral in VR because it’s one person physically walking up to another person. Personal space is a very real thing in virtual reality. You’re no longer watching something through a screen in VR; you are inside the screen. Because you’re embodied and that other person is embodied, personal space is a thing. Any toxic behavior, any harassing behavior, any verbal abuse or even groping is a million times more visceral. The sins of the internet have the ability to be amplified in VR in a terrible, terrible way. That’s something that the people who are creating these platforms are aware of and are building tools for users. But it needs to go much more long range than that.
“The sins of the internet have the ability to be amplified in VR in a terrible, terrible way.”
We’ve all heard of catfishing as this online phenomenon where you pretend to be someone you’re not. You gain someone else’s trust. You take advantage of them. We haven’t seen that yet in VR, but it does stand to reason that it will happen, and it will happen in ways that are potentially much more harmful. You can imagine someone appears in a multi-user space and says, “Oh, it’s me, it’s your grandson. I just wanted to make sure that I had your bank’s routing number so I could send you a little gift for your birthday.” Fraud in VR is going to be absolutely, unbelievably harmful. Whether it’s a regulatory approach or something that’s explicitly legislated, I’m not sure what the solution is. But we need to get out in front of this before it becomes a real problem.
Knowledge at Wharton: That brings up the concern around consumer trust in companies that use VR.
Rubin: With Facebook in the news the way it is, you can imagine the conversation that’s happening around privacy policies in VR. As the eye-tracking technology that I mentioned gets into headsets, imagine an advertiser salivating over the idea that they wouldn’t just get to see what a person’s eyes are doing — what they’re looking at, how long they’re looking at it — but then the next step is how you react to things. That’s a treasure trove of psychographic data that they have wanted to get their hands on for decades. It’s incumbent upon the hardware vendors and the software developers to be in lockstep about this.
Knowledge at Wharton: What’s next in the short term with VR?
Rubin: This important shift, and we’re just at the dawn of this, is this third generation of device is finally coming to market. We already know VR as being very lightweight devices that you can slap a smartphone into or really high-powered things that you need a high-powered PC to cable into. These so-called stand-alone devices are finally coming to market in the U.S. Oculus, which is owned by Facebook, is creating a lightweight one that’s just about to come out called the Oculus Go. You have other ones coming out from Lenovo and HTC. As they become more powerful, they do away with cords, they do away with phones. It’s an all-in-one device. All you have to do is turn it on and you have a high-powered, strong, stable VR experience.
The important thing about that isn’t just ease of use but its shareability. VR has gone from this thing that you either need a dedicated rig, in a dedicated room in your house, or you have this kind of unsatisfying, unstable mobile experience — to something that’s a really happy middle ground between the two. So, I think we’re going to see user curiosity and market penetration really begin to ramp up over the next year.