Lucas Rizzotto Proposes That Social VR’s Power Users Are Those With Mental or Physical Illnesses: Do You Agree or Not?

Photo by Allie Smith on Unsplash

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:

Lucas says:

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.

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Exploring Digital Identity Through Avatars: A Look at Drax’s Our Digital Selves Documentary

Alice Bonasio has written an article for The Next Web about Draxtor Despres (a.k.a. Bernhard Drax in real life) and his recently-completed documentary called Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me.

Titled Exploring Digital Identity Through Avatars, the article looks at how a variety of differently abled people choose to represent themselves in virtual worlds such as Second Life.

For those that speculate about the potential of social VR, it is interesting to note how inhabiting a virtual world allows these people to form and maintain meaningful relationships and connections with others, as SL user iSkye Silverweb recounts:

I don’t think my partner and I ever would have met in the physical world, even if we were in the same city, and it is because I am deaf.  Communication IS an issue for me; I would always be concerned about it, with meeting anyone.

It’s a raw and intensely emotional investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar, and how this – as one user puts it – “provides her with sustenance” and helps people to cope with all manner of both mental and physical disabilities.

It’s a great article and I urge you to go over to The Next Web and read it in full.

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Cody Lascala wearing a VR headset in Sansar

Cody LaScala and His Project

Me and Cody Lascala in Sansar 26 May 2018
Cody LaScala (right) and I in Sansar

My introduction to Cody LaScala was via Draxtor Despres’s documentary Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me, where he was one of 13 individuals with differing abilities interviewed by Drax. Cody LaScala is someone who comes quite often into Sansar, and I have gotten to know him over the past few weeks as he has attended Atlas Hopping.

After today’s Atlas Hopping, Cody invited me to join him in Second Life so we could talk about his project: he wants to start up a movie studio in SL!

Cody Lascala and me 26 May 2018
Cody LaScala (right) and I in Second Life

And I have offered Cody my help in getting this project off the ground. I am a born Second Life shopper, and I can assemble a really detailed, well-put-together avatar like nobody’s business! Surely that skillset could come in handy when starting up a movie studio!

Cody’s story can be read here. He has severe cerebral palsy as the result of a near-drowning in a swimming pool when he was just one year old. But Cody is much more than just his disability!

Virtual worlds like Sansar and Second Life provide a sort of level playing field for people with disabilities like Cody, allowing them to present themselves to others as they wish. For many people with differing abilities, virtual worlds may offer them the first opportunity in their lives to be able to self-disclose their disabilities when and where they wish, rather than having people just see a disabled person first and foremost. In Sansar or Second Life, other people don’t see a wheelchair first, they just see Cody!

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Picture of Cody LaScala in real life (taken from Cody LaScala’s Triumphant Story on the NAPA Center website)

So, we are embarking on a wonderful adventure. Perhaps you’d like to join Cody in his dream of founding a movie studio in Second Life? The more the merrier! Just send me a message via this blog or in-world in either Sansar or Second Life (I also told Cody I would support his project by blogging about it today). Sound off in the comments! Thanks 🙂

Drax’s Our Digital Selves Documentary is Now Available to Watch on YouTube

Cody and Donna at Linden Lab
Cody Lascala and Donna Davis at Linden Lab headquarters in San Francisco (still from the documentary Out Digital Selves)

Earlier this month, I had written about Draxtor Despres (a.k.a Bernhard Drax) and his documentary on the experiences of people with disabilities in virtual worlds, titled Our Digital Selves: My Avatar Is Me. Drax interviewed 13 people with a variety of disabilities for this film. Among the locations which Drax visited for this documentary were the corporate offices of High Fidelity and Linden Lab (the latter is the company behind the Second Life and Sansar platforms).

Today is Global Accessibility Awareness Day,  the purpose of which is to is to get everyone talking, thinking and learning about digital (web, software, mobile, etc.) access/inclusion and people with different disabilities. So Drac decided to release his documentary today, instead of tomorrow as he had originally intended!

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I was able to watch a preview of this documentary, and I enjoyed it very much! I think you will too.