Social Reality

by Carlos de Spinola*

I was obsessed with virtual reality as a kid. Films like The Lawnmower Man and Virtuosity quite literally supercharged my imagination. It was thrilling. Liberating. Empowering. But, back then it was teetering on the border of fantasy. Today, not so much. Just the other week, we saw Google announce Daydream. Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus is old news – Twitter also has its eyes on the technology, and even reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has hinted at his interest.

So, not only are we in the throes of a VR renaissance, but what’s intriguing me about this of late is the sudden interest in VR by social media companies (hint: it’s not about the tech).

Social platforms have been liberating – they have enabled us to connect with other people and cultures unlike anything in human history. They’ve helped spark revolutions, disintermediate industries and even redefine the family unit. They have facilitated our human need to create bonds and interact as a society with a fervour bordering on the evangelic. It’s about conversation not content. Social platforms have enabled us to have these conversations.

But, like everything nascent, it doesn’t always get created, or used, perfectly the first time around. We may be connecting with significantly more people than before, but those connections are nowhere near as deep and personal as relationships of old. We have become more fractured and ephemeral, and we often choose quantity over quality – it is this imbalance that VR will help us readjust.

In the long run, VR will ultimately humanise social networks.

It already is – look at social VR experiences like VRChat or AltspaceVR. Granted they are a bit rough around the edges (with more than a passing resemblance to The Lawnmower Man), but they are trailblazing in one key area – creating context.

VR offers context. That is the game changer.

Context, other than the ability to communicate, is arguably the single most important aspect in conversation. Environmental context. Social context. Body language. They are all essential for us to connect in a human way.

However,  this won’t be possible until the social mediums with which we currently interact are altered in a fundamental way. A linear, one-dimensional feed is not conducive to these types of interactions, which explains why social networks are increasingly featuring VR in their developmental roadmaps.

It won’t be an added element, but rather a reimagining of those networks from the ground up. And that is monumentally exciting.

However, it is no secret that advertisers are the ones keeping most social networks afloat, and a logical question would be: what would this mean for brands? Not much in the immediate future, unfortunately. At the moment, it is still pretty much innovation without application.

What lies beyond the horizon is an entirely different story.

In the distant future, VR will have immense potential to efficiently and effectively connect with consumers in a deeper and more meaningful way. Data from the Foresight Project shows that there is already a shift in the perception of VR amongst Australian consumers who, on the whole, get that it is an exciting and significant thing. But, as they put it, in order to “deliver on its transformative promise, VR needs to widen its appeal and figure out its relevance to society more broadly”.

The genius who is Chris Milk probably said it best, “It’s not a video game peripheral. It connects humans to other humans in a profound way. It can change people’s perception of each other, and that is how I think virtual reality has the potential to change the world.”

It enables empathy, and we are all for that.


*Carlos de Spinola is the Sydney-based Strategic Planning Director of the social-led agency, We Are Social.