How Can Virtual Reality Plug In to Social Media?

6:48 minutes

Facebook, Apple, and even the New York Times are investing in virtual reality to expand social networks and storytelling. Can more immersive media help us forge deeper digital and real-world connections? Cognitive psychologist Jeremy Bailenson, who is founding director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, discusses the promises and pitfalls of virtual reality.

Segment Guests

Jeremy Bailenson

Jeremy Bailenson is the Thomas More Storke Professor of Communications and Founding Director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University in Stanford, California.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Virtual Reality has existed in the main realm of science fiction and high tech gamers for the past 30 years. You remember those bulky helmets that were rigged up to a power glove? The technology has been trickling into the mainstream. You have your Oculus Rift. It’s made the gear more accessible. And there’s the New York Times teamed up with Google Cardboard to tap into the empathic side of storytelling. And Facebook announced it’s set up a team to bring the immersive medium to the social networking site.

Will be using VR as a social tool make it a reality? And do these virtual experiences change our real life relationships? The IRL. Jeremy Bailenson is Professor of Communications, also the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Welcome to Science Friday.

JEREMY BALIENSON: Thank you for having me.

IRA FLATOW: Mark Zuckerberg didn’t talk about any specifics about how FaceTime might use virtual reality. But he did visit your lab where you were studying avatars. Are we talking about Sim City here?

JEREMY BALIENSON: So Mark Zuckerberg, like many decision makers in tech companies– because I’m lucky enough to work in Silicon Valley– they come to my immersive virtual reality lab which is a lab where we study not only the technology, but more importantly, the human response to the technology.

So, when Mark came to the lab, we gave him lots of simulations where he put on the helmet and he walked around scenes. And he visited other places. But most importantly, he got to see what we call avatars, which is representations of other people inside the virtual world with you. And he got to experience the future of social interaction online.

IRA FLATOW: Why would people want to communicate through virtual reality?

JEREMY BALIENSON: You know, Ira, I asked myself that question. I’m not one that uses social networking. I’m not one that texts. However we do know that people love this technology. They love to interact with digital versions of others.

What VR does is it takes all the gadgets away, it takes all of the multitasking away, and you actually feel like you’re with someone. We call this social presence. You see their emotions, you see their gestures, and it feels just like you’re in the room with them. It takes what is typically seen as something that’s unemotional and distant and makes it feel like somebody is right there with you.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International, talking with Jeremy Bailenson. How soon is it until we have a practical VR pair of glasses or something? You know, you got the big headsets. We all know that over the years they are going to shrink down in size. Maybe be something just like a pair of regular glasses. How soon will this become mainstream?

JEREMY BALIENSON: So 18 months ago in my lab, we were using a head-mounted display that cost $40,000. We’re now using one the cost $300. And the reason is, it’s just better. And they’re getting cheaper and more comfortable. And I think we’re at the point where the helmets are good. But more importantly, we’re at the point where there is energy and, you know Ira, someone like you cares about this. And it’s wonderful that I get to talk to your listeners about something I’ve been doing for decades. Because now the hardware is actually around to allow us to have these neat social interactions inside VR.

IRA FLATOW: And you are a cognitive psychologist. Your lab studies how virtual reality can influence real-life behavior. What have you found in your studies about this?

JEREMY BALIENSON: When we started out, the questions we were asking in the late ’90s and for the next decade– they were mostly around, can you replicate face to face quality interaction in VR? Meaning, can I do eye contact? Can I do what I call the virtual handshake– when you feel like somebody is there.

What we then shifted toward was– we found out that, jeez, you can actually make VR better than face-to-face. You can make it hyper personal or more social than you can have in the real world. And there’s a lot of ways to think about that. So right now all of us, we’re hearing my voice. But if we were say on Skype or some other technology, you would see how I’m looking right now. And, you know, the truth is, I didn’t shave today and I’m not wearing a tie for this because you only hear my voice. And that vanity actually precludes us often from using things like Skype or from face-to-face visits because you’ve got to present your optimal self.

With avatars, you’re always the way you want to look. You never have gestures that are inappropriate because you can have algorithmic filters that solve that. You can actually be doing very strange things. For example, looking someone in the eye, but looking two people in the eye at once. And each of them feel like they’re the only ones getting your eye contact.

There’s a whole class of things I call nonverbal superpowers. Which is– I know it’s a strange concept, but your avatar can actually be a better communicator than you can.

IRA FLATOW: So when we talk about virtual reality, you’re not talking about seeing the real me. You’re talking about looking into an avatar world of things.

JEREMY BALIENSON: So I had– every few years, I have what’s called an aha moment. Which is, I see a technology that I thought was 20 years away and is here now. And I was at– there’s a company called High Fidelity– which if our listeners are familiar Second Life, the CEO of that, his name is Philip Rosedale, has formed something called High Fidelity.

I was there and they had their company meeting in VR and they let me join. And I was walking around and my body was moving as I was. I was doing hand gestures. I was literally walking around a space. And I got to walk up to someone and literally shake their hand and feel haptic and feedback. And, wow, it was just a light bulb went off. I’ve been building these for years, and we’ve always theorized about how it can be ready for face-to-face and I just had a really neat moment.

IRA FLATOW: Oh well, when is it going to be ready for prime time, you think?

JEREMY BALIENSON: I think that there are a number of companies who are kind of doing an arms race right now to try to get these avatars that look like you and gesture like you out there. There’s a company called Faceshift which– again, talk about aha moments. I got to see photorealistic avatars that do just what you’re doing.

We’re running a study right now in the lab where the end goal, Ira, is to replace travel that you don’t want to do. We should all travel when we want to, but let’s get rid of commutes that are unnecessary. And let’s get rid of business meetings where you fly across the world and burn fossil fuel for an hour long meeting. And I really believe that the software and the hardware are here. We’ve just now got to use it.

IRA FLATOW: Someone who has a face for radio would love to have a different avatar. Thank you, I can’t wait look like someone else.


JEREMY BALIENSON: I think we all share that sentiment.


IRA FLATOW: Thank you Jeremy. Jeremy Bailenson is Professor of Communications and the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University. Thanks for joining us today.

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