Is virtual reality the next social network?

We often hear that virtual reality (VR) will be the next big thing in gaming, but some of the most interesting uses of VR may be a long way from traditional gaming. With the imminent release of the Oculus Rift, closely followed by similar products from HTC and Playstation, what will the impact of VR be not just on gaming, but on how we socialise? 

What is Virtual Reality (VR)?

VR is created through wearing a special headset where an virtual world is presented in front of the user’s eyes, in such a way that they can temporality forget reality and believe that the ‘virtual reality’ is a real environment. A user can interact in virtual reality just as they can in the real world, and this can feel just as genuine, as their senses of sight, touch, hearing and smell can be artificially created while they play in the virtual world. 

Gaming or social?

The Oculus Rift – owned by Facebook – will release its own versions of popular games such as Minecraft, with the added ‘wow factor’ that players feel they are physically in the game. The participation is much more advanced; you do not use a games controller to turn left, but actually turn your head to see what’s on your left.

For all of you gamers out there, this probably sounds incredibly exciting, but even more mind-boggling are the non-gaming ways to use VR which Facebook is currently exploring.  Mark Zuckerberg sees huge potential for VR to be social, as users can interact with each other in a virtual world:

“The thing that’s really striking is that when you have another person there, the whole thing inherently becomes social… It’s not a game. There’s no points. There’s no score. There’s no objective. But people find ways to interact”.

So how will people be able to socialise in VR?

The supporters of a ‘social virtual reality’ hope that it will open up opportunities for us to experience places anywhere in the world with friends and family, as though we are truly present. We will design our ‘avatar’ and interact socially with other avatars in different virtual lands. This could be in amazing and bizarre places – on a different planet, on a picturesque beach, in outer space, or under water – pretty much anywhere you can imagine. Zuckerberg lists activities such as enjoying a courtside seat at a basketball game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers from all over the world, or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – all simply by putting some goggles on in the comfort of your own home. 

Those like Zuckerberg hope that VR will bring us together in fascinating worlds, but what impact could it have on us in the real world?

At the moment, we don’t know how popular social virtual reality will be, but it has potential to be just as popular as social networking as we currently know it. If this is the case then, just as gaming and social media today have their ups and downs, opportunities and risks, the impact of social virtual reality is likely to be both positive and negative. Some say that chatting through avatars in a social virtual world could be safer than using cam chat services as it’s easier to stay anonymous. Others might say that the heightened experience of social virtual reality – where users experience things with all five senses – might make users more vulnerable to scary experiences, or more likely to feel trusting towards people they don’t know in real life.

So what do you think:

- Is this something that interests you?

- Do you think it will change the ‘world’ as we know it?

- What do you think the pros and cons are?