Eva Hoerth is a VR design researcher & community organizer, and she enjoys recording videos of people as they’re immersed within a VR experience. She shot a video of of her co-worker in VR trying out the latest Leap Motion Orion update, and tweeted it out saying “This is the future.” It went viral with over 5000 retweets, 5 million views on Imgur, it hit the front-page of Reddit, and amassed nearly half a million views on YouTube.
It struck a chord and tapped into the public’s perception of VR, and some of the fears of social isolation that is a common perception of where VR technology is going. Eva wrote up an essay of these reactions on Medium titled “I love VR but hundreds of thousands of people think I hate it.”
I had a chance to catch up with Eva at the VR Hackathon before GDC to talk about some of these reactions, being a woman in VR, and some of her community organizing efforts to bring women in VR together.
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Here’s the video that Eva shot, as well as her original tweet:
— Eva (@downtohoerth) February 19, 2016
Eva does love VR, loves people watching, and is highly amused with “how hilarious today’s headsets look.” She says, “Today, we are literally this guy. Except imagine that chunky phone strapped to our eyeballs”
I think that there are a couple of other things that Eva’s viral video taps into. One is the fear that VR will transform our society into an anti-social dystopia, and the other one is that it’s weird and awkward to block out eye contact while you’re around other people in a social situation. Robert Scoble told me that part of the negative reactions to the Google Glass was that it broke eye contact while talking to people, and that this violated our social contracts and cultural norms.
I think that this breaking of eye contact can help explain why some of these other images of people using VR in public received such a strong reaction.
This image of man in VR outside of a restaurant was shared to reddit’s /r/pics on January 28, 2015, just a month after the Gear VR Innovator Edition was first released.
Then on June 11, 2015, Zach Lieberman posted a picture of game developer Dimitri Lozovoy playing a VR game on the NYC subway.
the future has arrived pic.twitter.com/mtIERnEwjx
— zach lieberman (@zachlieberman) June 11, 2015
Here’s a video of Dimitri playing VR in public:
This was written up by Gothamist and Gizmodo, with comments about how absurd VR looks and marveling at how “the person we were gawking at couldn’t even see or hear us. So we all had complete license to stare, and boy did we ever.”
On February 21, 2016, just a couple of days after Eva’s video went viral, Mark Zuckerberg attended Samsung’s Unpacked event and entered the room while the entire audience was immersed within a VR experience. Here’s the image that Mark posted to his Facebook account:
is this picture an allegory of our future ? the people in a virtual reality with our leaders walking by us. pic.twitter.com/ntTaTN3SdR
— Nicolas Debock (@ndebock) February 21, 2016
The picture trips all of our “horrible cyberpunk future” alarms, carefully put in place by everything from The Matrix to Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent. The former uses evil squid-bodied robots, the latter privileged human elites, but both works see humanity too distracted and preoccupied — by a full-scale replica of late-90s reality, or just sports on TV — to even be aware of the actions of those in charge. Zuckerberg’s picture acts this out: MWC attendees plugged into Samsung’s Gear VR headset literally can’t see the Facebook boss as he breezes past them.
I think Robert Scoble is right. The Google Glass violates the unspoken social contract of eye contact, and wearing VR in public triggers a similar social taboo of not being aware of the other people around you. This image of billionaire Zuckerberg evokes even more connections to a dystopian sci-fi visions where the masses are unwittingly being controlled, but overall I think that part of what makes this image feel “creepy” is that the people aren’t fully aware of what’s happening “outside of the matrix” in the real world. Having a powerful celebrity walk by you can be a memorable event, and these people in the photo are completely unaware of it.
I do think that VR, and especially mobile VR, will face some cultural barriers in being used in social situations. Samsung attempts to normalize the use of VR in public with this ad showing a woman using VR on a bus:
Will people start to use VR more in public situations? Or will the chilling effects of public shaming or the feeling of vulnerability be too great? Or will people be more likely to use AR in public since they’ll have more situational awareness of their environment.
I think it’s worth reflecting on these viral images and videos of people using VR in social situations, listening to the public’s reaction, and being aware of how these reactions continue to change and evolve as more and more people have their own personal experiences with VR.