The value of social interactions in VR


August 31, 2019

What VR can do to social interaction

Like many new technologies, virtual reality (VR) has both been hailed as the next big thing as well as the next big fad. But as technology becomes more accessible and affordable to users, it has become obvious that people both want to use VR, and that content makers are churning out new games and experiences on their platforms.

In 2014, Facebook decided to acquire Oculus as a strategic move to enter the arena of VR. As the main player for social media, it was both a natural step and a risky strategy for Facebook to take on a completely new technology like VR as part of their media strategy.

As a natural consequence of the acquisition, Facebook wanted to understand how social interaction would work on their new VR platform. Would people find it unnatural or perhaps even better than other types of communication? After all, smileys were more or less invented as a way to ensure that text-messages were not misunderstood since they lacked the nuance provided through non-verbal communication of natural dialogues.

Here, Neurons Inc was commissioned to test how people responded to speaking to a stranger in a VR setting as compared to a normal in-person conversation.

"To see that people are responding so well means that we can bring billions of people closer together."
- Rachel Franklin, Head of Social Virtual Reality, Facebook

How the study was done

We tested 90 people from ages 18-51 who had little to no prior experience in VR. Each participant was randomly assigned to a group as to whether they would be talking to another person in a VR environment or in-person. Conversation pairs were also randomized. All participants were wearing an EEG brain monitoring headset, and independent video recording was used to ensure synchronization of recordings and monitor people's behavior. The conversations were asked to be either small-talk or on a deeper and more personal level. After their conversations, each participant underwent an interview. These steps are shown below.

Social VR works!

One of the main questions of this study was whether social interaction in VR would feel strange and unnatural, or whether novice users enjoyed it. Here, we found that VR conversations produced almost the same level of emotional engagement as in-person talks. This suggests that VR, while still being a new technology, is an improvement for social interaction compared to existing forms of tech-mediated social interactions.

This is both a surprising and reassuring finding. Further support for VR as a positive platform comes from an association with the highest level of desire to meet the person again, and qualitative data suggesting VR is perceived as interesting, engaging yet also "safe" as an interaction forum.

"Most of the people we had in this (VR) experiment said that they would like to like to meet the other person that they met, again."
- Vicki Molina-Estonalo, Consumer Insights Researcher, Facebook Marketing Science

VR conversations are fluent

Another finding we made was that cognitive demand during VR conversations were equal to in-person talks. To put this in context, prior work at Neurons has found that video chats can be too cognitively demanding. Indeed, we have found that video chat levels can display a very high degree of cognitive load, higher than recommended "sweet spot" values, and are deemed cognitively demanding. This is particularly telling for women, who show a particularly high degree of cognitive stress during video chat.

Introverts prefer social VR

This was one of the unexpected findings: people who were more naturally introverted (as measured independently) were both more emotionally engaged and preferred the VR chat compared to in-person talks.

The future of social VR

At the time that the study was conducted Mark Zuckerberg went on stage to present Facebook's new mixed reality solution for VR interactions. Here, we saw that social interaction could definitely benefit from technological advances beyond the first steps of VR -- indeed, mixed reality with a combination of virtual and augmented reality seemed to become a more natural next step for technologies.

When we peek into the future, it is hard not to see how our social lives will exist in virtual environments to an increasing extent. With the present findings in mind, there is much to suggest that social interaction will be facilitated and perhaps even boosted by VR, rather than inhibited or limited.

Facebook IQ has further information about the study, with additional statistics and quotes from participants, in their VR article.