Caseman (caseman984) wrote,
Caseman
caseman984

The Social VR Landscape

So my dad sent me this book:

and it's pretty great. I'm not done with it yet, but I have had a lot of thoughts about it, especially as it relates to my last entry. The first half of the book is all about how technology has evolved over the last 20-30 years, and what impact it has had on the workforce. Mostly that computing power has changed what skills are valuable, and how that change has evolved as information technology has gotten more and more powerful. It's really fascinating stuff to think about, especially looking forward(!AI!). The second half of the book, which I've only just started, explores the skills which computers are going to have a very difficult time replicating in the near future, the first of which is Empathy.

I realized that a lot of what I was talking about, that sense of alienation, comes from a lack of a sense of empathy in the Internet today. Honestly a lot of what I've been thinking about since The Incident and my subsequent feminist revelations, has been empathy (or a lack thereof). For a long time I was fascinated (in a horrific car accident kind of way) with the actions of Internet movements like GamerGate and the Men's Rights Activists. Namely the unspeakable harassment and violence carried out on women around the world based solely on something they said or did that wound up in the spotlight of those groups. It struck me as completely unfathomable that these people could cross a line into doing these things to another living soul. So I thought that maybe if I could understand how such movements formed, I could understand how people got to the point where they felt justified in committing these horrible acts. I think the parallels to the current national sense of fear re: Islam and terrorism are obvious. Carry out certain symbolic acts of aggression upon highlighted targets and other individuals in those groups will think twice before sticking their head up and saying something. But one of the things that this book talks about is that not only is empathy a deeply human skill, but one that has been measurably in decline over the past few decades. Geoff cites a lot of studies about the rise of text messaging and email as the sole means of communication between individuals, and how those methods of communication stifle any sense of empathy between the individuals communicating. I believe this is the kind of thing that could probably be debated, I know a lot of people who think otherwise, but I think presupposing he's correct leads down some interesting roads.

For starters, it's interesting to look at the demographics of the groups I mentioned earlier. It's my demographic. Late twenties to early thirties white males. The same people who grew along side the digital revolution. One of the things that Mr. Colvin mentioned that keeps ringing in my head is that people are increasingly avoiding using telephones to make calls. I know I for one hate calling people. I think that this probably has a lot to do with growing up in a way that nurtured a text-based communication skill set in me. I know that the way that Elise and I talk in person lacks the depth of how we talk in text or chat. This is something we have to work on as a couple, so that's all I'll say of it here. But based on the habits and upbringing of the people I'm talking about here, it's not too outside the realm of possibility to think that there might be some correlation between growing up a gamer and having a severely diminished skill in empathy.

That's another thing that Geoff Colvin says repeatedly in his book: empathy (and other social skills) while inherit to the human experience, are not just some innate thing that you either have or your don't, they're skills that must be cultivated and practiced. It's here that I think the burgeoning field of Virtual Reality comes into play.  It's here that I think of this demo created for the Playstation VR experience: Summer Lesson. It's easy to look at that game and just dismiss it as being a creepy anime-girl-leering simulator. But I remember something someone (sorry for lack of citation here) said in a podcast: Sitting in proximity to this woman in a virtual space felt almost too intimate. It made them feel uncomfortable to have a (completely virtual) person trying to initiate eye contact and intimate conversation with them. I think this is a key example of what makes VR experiences different, and why they will play an important role in how we relate to each other in the coming years. Something about the immersion and level of realism in this new VR tech conveys a sense of presence that no other tech before it has been able to do. There's one other demo to consider here, and I promise I will get to a point eventually. The Oculus Toybox Demo is an incredible glimpse into what VR offers for social interaction. I think watching that might give you some idea as to why Mark Zuckerberg immediately bought Oculus, because he knows that this tech will be key to the future of social interactions online. Even without any sort of facial expression and very limited hand gestures, two people are able to interact with each other within a virtual space in a way that has never been seen before. It's important to note that 2d video representations don't do a very good job of relaying that sense of presence that I mentioned before. Those two people feel like they are IN that space, as it takes up the majority of their vision, and their physical bodies are portrayed there within that space via the Oculus Touch controllers.

The implications of this are something I haven't been able to stop thinking about for months. It relates to my earlier questions about the nature of social interaction online in a profound way, though I don't yet know to what level. The lack of real facial expression in the virtual models certainly hurts their relate-ability as a human avatar, but I think the choice to have the model be wearing the goggles as well is an incredibly smart one, as it's much better than a vacant, hollow-eyed face. Regardless of the lack of a facial component to their communication, I think body language goes a long way to relaying a lot of social information between the two individuals. Even better is the ways in which those interactions can be played with, as demonstrated by the scaling down of one of the participants in the later part of the video. Removing the avenue of facial expression and being able to control individual scale are things not easily done in the real world ( or laboratory) setting. I am completely fascinated by the idea that this virtual space might allow for generating entirely new avenues of social communication between people. I want to measure, in a controlled setting, the level of empathy generated by communication in this virtual space as opposed to face-to-face, or audio-only and visual-only communication. My theory is that this technology is going to bring us closer than ever to the intimacy of face-to-face contact than we have ever been in the realm of cyberspace.

So to tie this all together, an idea I've been kicking around in my head for the past couple hours is trying to game-ify empathy. A VR developer could create some kind of game wherein you have to glean the emotion state of a virtual person in order to progress. This could take the form of the interrogation sequences of LA Noir, or maybe some sort of party member mechanic in an RPG or something. I don't know, game design isn't really my thing. I do think, however, that we have to data to create virtual companions that could relay, with a high level of detail and accuracy, how humans relay their emotional state. The research into the details of the human face and how it portrays the emotional state of the individual has already been done. Geoff goes on for a bit about the concept of micro-expressions. These are ways in which the many individual muscles in our face move when we are feeling a certain way, even without our knowing it. I think the tech is probably a long way from being able to relay actual human facial muscle movements, but I think the modeling and animation could be done on virtual character models, or perhaps motion-captured to the same end.

Colvin's whole thesis seems to be based around the idea that computers will be able to do a great deal of the menial work of our lives in the not too distant future, and this means that we will be forced to cultivate the skills that computers will NOT be able to do, at least not within the next couple human generations. I think our best bets for doing so are by using that same technology to help ourselves along towards that goal. What exactly that will look like, I'm not entirely sure yet. What I do know is that I would like to be involved in doing the research that is necessary in making it a reality, and pushing the technology forward.

Tags: school, social psychology, vr
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