Virtual Reality and Finding a Home in the World

At the very beginning of the pandemic, I purchased an Oculus Rift (a wireless VR headset). I knew I would be spending significantly more time at home, and had an idea that I’d want something to make things more interesting. I had come off a 2019 heavy with in-person events and travel, so it was already an adjustment to live at a slower pace (even though this was necessary and intentional.)

VR ended up playing a significant role for me during a period of many life transitions, and I’ve since spoken with others who have shared this experience. It’s easy to write it off as purely escapism, but I believe there are some interesting ways in which VR has come to function as a sense of place.

For context, let’s first consider small ways we feel at home when in non-standard physical situations. In the film Gravity, Sandra Bullock’s character encounters a series of potentially deadly challenges in space. As she makes her way from one international space vessel to another, there are small figurines consistently placed atop the instrument panel. In the Soviet space station, she encounters St. Christopher. In the Chinese space station, the Buddha. These tiny reminders serve as anchors in an unfamiliar and desolate landscape far from the astronauts’ homes.

As children, we may have a favorite stuffed animal or toy that we carry from place to place. Children can become very attached to these objects, who end up functioning almost as imaginary friends, with their own stories, complex relationships, and preferences. If this object goes missing, especially during travel to an unfamiliar place, it can throw things off significantly, as this object functions as an extension of “home” and the familiar.

Now, to the world of pixels. The settings of games, particularly immersive ones, become as familiar to us at the types of objects mentioned above, especially if we play them routinely. The interesting thing about this is that games have no physical location beyond the location we play them in. During periods of relative isolation for varying reasons (COVID, social, physical, etc.), we can come back to a place that we are familiar with, which functions as its own type of comfort.

For games that have a haptic component, this goes even further. I remember I had been at home for several weeks without much physical contact with others when I did the initial demo for the Oculus Rift. It involves dancing with a friendly robot-like character. When you place your hands in its hands, you experience a sensation in the controllers. This was jarring and unexpectedly relieving coming off of weeks of isolation. It is not a substitute for human touch by any means, but it made me remember that there was a whole world of interaction beyond the limited one I had been occupying.

I also downloaded a number of titles, including Nature Treks VR, with stunning imagery. Given my previous level of travel, I wanted to experience immersive, beautiful environments without having to go anywhere. I spent a fair bit of time on the “beach”, creating rainstorms, butterflies, and trees as desired. This beach was a constant over the course of a time when my sense of home was tenuous for various reasons. I experienced that same VR scene in 4 different physical locations.

I believe VR games create the same types of attachments and memories that we can get from our own imaginations, real physical events, and real physical objects. They can serve as a “home away from home,” being a constant at times where there may be very few things we can count on. To function, VR games must have a set of rules. The game can’t be too predictable to avoid being boring, but there must be a relationship between actions and results to move the gameplay forward. In the “real world,” this relationship isn’t always quite as simple, as external factors can come between actions and results. Worse, there are seemingly completely random elements of interference that we can’t be warned about. Who can resist the allure of a beautiful, interactive world that functions according to clearer rules than the one we currently occupy? There’s also some hope that VR can increase empathy even in violent offenders.

(Side note: the majority of my games on the VR side are for fun and stress relief. Others introduce conflict intentionally by focusing more on competitive or difficult games, which can produce a sense of accomplishment. Everyone’s motivation is different.)

I believe VR serves a real purpose, especially during COVID. However, I also believe a balance must be maintained in the longer term in our lives between being passive consumers of visual and textual information and active creators of those same types of information. I believe we most all come with innate creativity and a desire to express it to the world. This can get blunted pretty heavily if we allow ourselves to only passively consume information, such as through others’ perspectives on social media, opinion columns, TV news, etc. At a certain point, we can simply become consumers or responders to others’ thoughts, and can reduce our time spent thinking for ourselves or thinking critically.

For this reason, I believe in taking breaks from most forms of consumption on a regular basis. The way this looks for you may be different from how it does for me. I do not believe there is anything inherently wrong with the types of media I mentioned; what’s important is to avoid losing your originality and creativity by slipping too far into passivity.

To insert something remotely related to our work in analytics (and because it is very interesting), I read this article a few weeks ago, which mentions that “[u]sing only the position tracking data, we find that even with more than 500 participants to choose from, a simple machine learning model can identify participants from less than 5 min of tracking data at above 95% accuracy. Therefore, we contribute data suggesting typical VR experiences produce identifying data.”

While we’re out there keeping our sense of home, let’s also remember the importance of privacy and the not-always-common-sense way that data can come to be associated with identifiable characteristics. I don’t have all the answers, but in our roles, we’re often in the place to prevent or further anonymize PII. We can also support organizations like the EFF, who focus on passing the right legislation around complex issues.

This concludes the short tour of my thoughts on VR, our sense of place, and the ever-present reminder to keep in mind user privacy in design and data collection. Always happy to hear your thoughts in the comments, and thanks for indulging this winding exploration.

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