At Facebook’s “F8” developers conference this week, we got a brief snapshot of Facebook’s ongoing experiments in the world of virtual reality — including interactive tours of London’s historical attractions and a demo of what socializing with VR headsets now looks like.
Since Facebook acquired Oculus VR in 2014, the potential for “virtual reality” to upend communication as we know it has loomed large on the tech horizon. As Vanity Fair reported last September, Mark Zuckerberg sketched his vision of the vast possibilities of virtual reality on his Facebook page:
“Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face—just by putting on goggles in your home…Virtual reality was once the dream of science fiction. But the internet was also once a dream, and so were computers and smartphones.”
In combination with that level of hype, the current ambiguity around how widespread adoption of virtual reality platforms will actually affect our everyday lives seems to only stoke the fires of curiosity from futurists of every profession. When our communication paradigms change completely, what will that era look like?
Eventbrite just published a study that demonstrates the importance of real-world political engagement; it found that people who attend political events are vastly more likely to discuss politics on social media, to donate money to a political cause, and to volunteer for a political cause. But in a VR-driven world, the value of showing up in person may completely evaporate. If people can experience what it’s like to watch a live basketball game or attend a live concert without leaving the comfort of their homes, it may be unrealistic to expect that they show up to a political rally.
Imagining a world where the majority of citizens are equipped to instantaneously ‘plug in’ to an immersive experience, expectations and demands for transparency and authenticity may reach new heights as physical and experiential barriers between broadcasters and audiences come crashing down.
For those of us in the business of engaging people in social movements, that may mean more competition for listener attention than ever before. Traditional PSAs aren’t going to cut it when your target audience has the option to experience skydiving over Cappadocia instead. And it may be especially difficult for nonprofits and organizations with fewer resources than huge video game companies to create compelling VR content.
But the potential for VR as a tool of social change is also tantalizing. Someone who’s never been camping before could experience a sunrise over Glacier National Park and, for the first time, understand on a gut level why our public should be preserved. Planned Parenthood could show their core donors why their support is critically needed by sharing the experience of crossing the line of anti-choice protestors outside a women’s health clinic in Texas. Advocates for affordable housing could let people experience the living conditions of Skid Row in downtown Los Angeles from a position of complete safety and comfort.
Sweeping VR adoption is still years off. While you can currently get a developer’s headset online for about $400, the full kit necessary to actually live through a VR experience costs $1500 – and still not widely available to purchase. But with the backing of the world’s most influential innovators, it’s safe to say that virtual reality is coming, and it will be up to us to create virtual experiences that promote empathy, bridge social differences, and bring us closer together.