Lucas Rizzotto, who is the founder and CEO of the VR experience Where Thoughts Go (available on Steam and the Oculus Store), has posted a thread of tweets on Twitter, suggesting that the “power users” of social VR are those who suffer from a mental or physical illness that prevents them from participating fully in real-life society:
I don’t know if people know this, but the power users of social VR right now are kids and people who suffer from a mental/physical illness that stops them from socializing normally in their day-to-day life. Social VR is what gives them control over their social life.
By “power users”, I mean the people that spend the most amount of hours in-app, which are the users that are theoretically gaining the most from a product. Exceptions may apply, but it still doesn’t change the overwhelming majority.
This tells us something REALLY important: people use social VR to fill GAPS missing from their real-life interactions, not to REPLACE them. The more similar social VR interactions are to the real-world the less use they have to the general population. It fills less gaps!
And it makes sense! Social VR fills very important gaps for those 2 groups. Kids have a social life heavily constrained by their families & educational institutions, while people who suffer from certain illnesses may be stuck at home or too anxious to engage normally with others.
What this means is that the idea that the everyday men and women will simply stop hanging out in real life and just do it in VR instead is delusional. There are so many hidden nuances about in-person interactions that people won’t give up, even if they cannot verbalize them.
So the question becomes: when are people willing to give those things up?
1) When it’s overwhelmingly economically advantageous to meet in VR (i.e. you don’t have to fly somewhere)
2) When the social gathering is more about acquiring information than connecting at a human level
So if you’re a designing a social XR product, ask yourself: are you filling a gap in people’s social lives or are you just giving them another way to do what they do today? And if that’s so, are the economic benefits enough to justify them giving up the nuances of meeting in real life?
Now, the idea that social VR/virtual worlds are a haven of sorts for those with disabilities or illnesses is not exactly a new concept. In fact, Brenhard Drax (a.k.a. Second Life and Sansar videomaker Draxtor Despres) has made an award-winning documentary about this topic, called Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me, which you can watch below:
Lucas Rizzottos’ premise is rather intriguing. But I don’t agree with Lucas’ proposal that social VR’s power users are mostly people who do have a disability or illness of some sort. While I agree that the overall percentage of the disabled or physically/mentally ill participating in social VR/virtual worlds is certainly higher than what you would find in real-life society, it is still a clear minority of social VR users.
Most of the people who use social VR are mentally and physically healthy, non-disabled people who choose to spend a certain portion of the day inside a VR headset! They do so for a variety of reasons, not necessarily that they don’t have real-life options.
That is not to say that the differently abled, and those who have a mental or physical illness, aren’t attracted to social VR and virtual worlds. I can think of numerous examples of people I have met in Sansar, such as Shyla the Super Gecko (who is profiled in Drax’s documentary above), who successfully use Sansar as a social outlet. And I myself have shared on this blog about my struggles with severe clinical depression, so even I would fit into Lucas’ thesis. I admit that there have been days in the past, when I was depressed, when I would rather slip on my Oculus Rift headset and be social in a virtual world than go outside in the real one. And I found that the mood lift I would get from being social in VR was similar to the one I would get in real life, too.
What do you think? Do you agree with Lucas Rizzotto that social VR’s power users are those with mental or physical illnesses, or not? Please feel free to leave a comment below, or even better, join us on the RyanSchultz.com Discord server and tell us what you think there! We’d love to have you.