How Virtual Reality Will Help People Belong, Not Just Fit In

We ask a Human Experience Designer about making real connections outside the real world.

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31 January 2017, 11:33pm

Virtual Reality experiences are becoming more refined all over the globe; wearable tech is more accessible, graphics are more lifelike, and headaches caused by display lag are less of a problem. VR is already being used in a wide variety of applications including gaming, treating medical conditions, and sex. But as designers and software developers chase the next big thing, how is VR changing how we interact with, and relate to, each other?

One organisation at the forefront of this movement is Magic Leap, a startup specialising in mixed-reality technology. The Florida-based company has attracted serious investment from heavyweights including Google, Ali Baba, and Warner Bros. 

Alysha Naples consults companies on technology design, and recently finished a stint at Magic Leap as Senior Designer. She'll be speaking at the upcoming PauseFest in Melbourne about the unintended consequences of technology design, and how to design for humans in the virtual space.

VICE: Hey Alysha. Let's talk virtual reality. Why should we be excited? Are we going to start spending more time in the virtual space than the real world?
Alysha Naples: I'm sure that that will happen. People are already spending a lot of time in games like World of Warcraft. VR will become a delivery system that is just as common as any other delivery system. 

How do we stop a Black Mirror type situation from happening?
We have to be very careful. We need to be designing experiences that actually strengthen people's ties to communities. These could be virtual communities of humans or they could be physical communities like neighbourhoods or schools.

Is the digital world not doing this currently?
Online communities like social media platforms have been fantastic for giving people places to fit in, but they haven't done a great job of giving people places to belong. Our online friendships have allowed us to be present in a lot of people's lives, but so many of the interactions are superficial. I'm a huge fan of researcher Brené Brown, and she talks about the difference between fitting in and belonging. Fitting in is about understanding what's expected and showing that you can follow those rules. Belonging, however, is being accepted for exactly who you are, even if you don't fit in. The harder you try to fit in, the less likely you are to be able to belong. As soon as you show an acceptance of those statements of conformity, you're not being who you are necessarily.  

How will VR fix this?
One of the things that people are getting really excited about is the idea of being able to be present with somebody even when you're not physically with them. One day instead of calling your mum, she can be having a cup of tea in her home and you're having a cup of tea in your home and it feels like you're having a cup of tea together. What this is, is people longing for belonging. It's something that I don't think the social media that we have today can support. What is my real hope for VR? It's that we can actually find ways for people to belong, not just to fit in. 

Is anyone already doing this successfully?
There's this game for Playstation 3 called Journey, and its central game mechanic is about building friendship. You travel the desert with a companion who is actually a human playing the game somewhere else. You support one another to get through the game faster. When you finish the game you're on a mountain in the snow. The first time I finished I was with a companion more experienced than myself. When the camera pulled out, I realised he had walked the shape of a heart in the snow around me. I lost my shit. I cried. 

No way.
If you look online, even five years later, there are active message boards talking about how Journey breaks and mends your heart in the span of a two hour game experience. It's proof that you can design an incredibly human, moving, and emotional connection into software. But you can only do it if that's what your focus is.

Is this what you're aiming for, to advocate for meaningful connections through software? 
A lot of what I'm trying to do is remind people working in technology and in software that there is a human being at the other end of the system that they're creating. Each one of us, even if we're demographically identical, are not going to be the same and we're not going to have the same hopes and fears. What I'm trying to do with my work is to be an advocate for the human beings that are at the other end of the systems that we're creating.

How do you do this when there's so much money to be had in a successful start-up? I feel like the sector isn't always driven by such altruistic intentions.
I believe the vast majority of the products and services that are put into the world are done with a belief that this thing is going to make somebody's life better. But I think what is also happening is that with the speed of innovation, change, and development in technology, things are moving really fast and so they're often done in ways that have unintended consequences. Designing technology is looking at human nature and our basic emotional needs. You're designing for connection, for belonging, building software that actually supports us as humans. It's not a sexy two-minute tech demo—it's a lifelong investment. 

Alysha Naples is speaking at PauseFest, which runs from  8-10 February in Melbourne. Buy tickets here or enter to win tickets here by 3 February 2017.

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