Taking a Look at the Current Academic Research on Social Virtual Reality (Part I of a Series)

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One of the things I most enjoy about being an academic librarian is having access to all the research databases to which my university subscribes—and the know-how to search them effectively and efficiently! Every so often I like to do a deep-dive into the research to see what’s new in the world of virtual worlds and virtual reality.

In this blogpost, I wish to highlight some recent academic work which looks at the rapidly evolving world of commercial social VR. This is the first of what I expect will be a series on social VR research.

A trio of researchers at the University of California, Santa Cruz (Dr. Katherine Isbister, Professor in Computational Media at the Jack Baskin School of Engineering; her Ph.D. student Anya Kolesnichenko; and post-doc Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, who recently left UCSC and accepted a professorship at San Francisco State University) have been publishing a number of research papers at various computer conferences on social virtual reality. Here are citations to three of their papers, which you can obtain from your local academic or public library:

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Márquez Segura, E., Merrill, N., & Isbister, K. (2018). What’s It Mean to “Be Social” in VR?: Mapping the Social VR Design Ecology. In DIS ’18 Companion: Proceedings of the 2018 ACM Conference Companion Publication on Designing Interactive Systems (pp. 289–294). https://doi.org/10.1145/3197391.3205451

McVeigh-Schultz, J., Kolesnichenko, A., & Isbister, K. (2019). Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR: An Emerging Design Framework. In CHI ’19: Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300794

Kolesnichenko, A., Mcveigh-Schultz, J., & Isbister, K. (2019). Understanding Emerging Design Practices for Avatar Systems in the Commercial Social VR Ecology. In DIS ’19 Proceedings of the 2019 on Designing Interactive Systems Conference (pp. 241–252). https://doi.org/10.1145/3322276.3322352

In addition to these papers, which I strongly urge platform developers, as well as anybody who is interested in social VR, to obtain and read, Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz have given presentations which you can access on YouTube. The following is a presentation made this past March by Joshua McVeigh-Schultz at the 2019 Virtual Reality Developers Conference (part of the Game Developers Conference):

And the second is a presentation by both Dr. Isbister and Dr. McVeigh-Schultz given at the Mozilla Emerging Technology Speaker Series (the Mozilla Foundation supported some of their research with a grant).

Using a method of design-oriented autobiographical landscape research to examine existing commercial social VR platforms, the researchers attempted to identify key issues and concerns for future social VR design, and areas for possible future research. In-depth interviews were conducted with designers, developers, and other experts involved in the creation of social VR applications such as Rec Room, AltspaceVR, Facebook Spaces, VRChat, Mozilla Hubs, Anyland, and High Fidelity.

One interesting finding: the researchers discovered a clear design distinction between large open platforms where one was likely to encounter strangers (Rec Room, VRChat, High Fidelity, etc.) and non-open platforms where you connected mostly with people you already knew (Mozilla Hubs, Facebook Spaces):

Especially among the large open platforms where a user is likely to encounter strangers, we found convergence around broad design themes involving the role of place and space, community engagement, moderation, social catalysts and activity structures, social mechanics of friending/muting/blocking etc., and other embodied affordances including a range of communication modalities. However, we also observed fairly substantial divergence in terms of particular mechanics underlying these broad design areas. Furthermore, for non-open-world platforms such as Facebook Spaces and Mozilla Hubs, we noted less focus on supporting safety and security, and more investment in design goals associated with: supporting device interoperability, empowering a range of participation modalities, and bridging social encounters in VR with the outside world.

—McVeigh-Schultz, J. Shaping Pro-Social Interaction in VR

What’s exciting to me is that these people are conducting research in the exact same area where my own interests lie! (I’ve found my kind of people!!!) And since I have decided to suspend my previous VR research project for being much too broad and overambitious, discovering this published work gives me some much-needed food for thought on possible future research projects which I could decide to pursue at my university.

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