Virtual Reality (VR) technology has been around for decades but is significantly growing in consumer adoption. With a predicted boom in the VR industry of approximately $75 billion by the end of 2021, the increased use of this technology brings up important questions. One of the biggest concerns is whether this increase in VR will decrease rates of socialization, as more people spend time on tech devices as opposed to in person. Technology use has already partially resulted in this, as a 2013 psychology study found that a smartphone or tech device present during a conversation (even when not in use) lowered closeness between the two subjects. This is important as most of us have our phones within two feet of us at all times. A 2019 study by Stanford University found similar results as one person felt uncomfortable when their partner tended to wear a VR headset in their presence. These trends hint at larger problems to come with VR technology, if hypothetically more individuals adopt these devices, but this doesn’t seem to be the whole story.
In a room with two people, one felt put-off when the other used a VR device or other technology, but what about when both individuals had VR devices? In 2017, after acquiring Oculus Rift, Facebook commissioned Neurons Inc. to do a study on socialization and VR technology. Specifically, they wanted to compare the differences in psychological features between having a conversation face-to-face or within a VR platform. Using 60 participants, ranging from ages 18-51, the results showed that 93% preferred a VR conversation to a face-to-face one. The study suggested that the number of introverts may have boosted their results, as introverts tend to be shyer and use a screen as a shield to hide behind. In this instance, VR seemed to be more successful for socialization, especially for introverts. This could be the next wave of remote socialization, a better version of platforms like Zoom, but not everyone has the devices yet to make this more acceptable.
While socializing via a VR headset may seem like something out of a science fiction movie (cue Ready Player One), other studies have corroborated the result that VR can actually improve socialization and connection. In 2018, MIT ran a study that focused on the effects of VR on older adults. Using voluntary participants from assisted living facilities, the researchers found that the VR boosted mental health and feelings of connection compared to the control group. VR can be especially beneficial for the elderly demographic, as they typically are more isolated from friends and family members, causing them to feel lonely. The benefits of feeling more connected through VR can also be applied to younger demographics, such as students doing remote learning. In the wake of the pandemic, studies have shown that students also feel less connected when doing remote learning. This is where VR could help better connect these individuals.
Though VR adds benefits of virtual socialization, it comes with a lot of strings attached affecting its wider adoption. From a reputation of only being for video gamers to a fragile supply chain, VR can be difficult for many users to get ahold of. Current VR technology is costly, and the social platforms need for VR users haven’t been fully created yet. In order to create VR platforms, one needs an education in various coding languages, which constrains who can create these platforms. As the increase in capital to this industry continues, hopefully, VR will become more accessible to all ages and backgrounds.
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Miller, Mark Roman, Hanseul Jun, Fernanda Herrera, Jacob Yu Villa, Greg Welch, and Jeremy N. Bailenson. 2019. “Social Interaction in Augmented Reality.” Edited by Atsushi Senju. PLOS ONE 14 (5): e0216290.
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