COMPACT Horizon 2020 project experience: Virtual Reality communication and its implications
Virtual Reality (VR) is more than just a new communication channel. It is an entirely new paradigm of participation. Major VR affordance is Immersion and Presence. By those terms we understand the specific experience of the individual engaged in conversation or interactive activity where two or more participants feel co-present in one time and space and are disconnected from the outside world.
While state-of-the art mainstream platforms offer good connectivity improved with the arrival of fast broadband and HD video and sound, they do not really deliver on “presence” or “co-presence”. That property for years has been giving an edge to the in-person meetings to online engagements and that is the main reason why an online meeting has not pushed out the largely costly in-person meetings (travel, CO2 emissions and related costs) despite the strong economic and environmental benefit. In online meetings available with the use of popular platforms such as Skype, MS teams, Cisco WebEx, GotoMeeting, Google Hangouts or ZOOM participants are easily distracted and are limited by the “screen barrier” in the form of the computer display through which participants “experience each other”. That has strong implications on attention and “devotion to the meeting”. Namely if the number of participants is larger the meeting becomes ubiquitously anonymous. Participants often check e-mail and check notifications as they arrive to their computers or simply follow on with their work. The very common situation in the teleconferencing is that the moderator asks some participants a question and the common answer is “can you repeat that”. That single phrase is a strong reflection on how low focused participants are and what are the limitations of this legacy technology that with some improvements has been a part of business and education for over two decades. Those factors made in-person meeting to stay an essential component of every major business, education and research engagement. Every EU-funded project could not really go on without in-person plenary meeting organised once in a while to ensure relevant level of engagement and interactivity, while online components were only complementary. The situation now has been shifting due to COVID pandemics and online communication which is often the only option to deliver group work, co-creation and general connectivity.
VR has still a long way to go to ensure photorealistic graphics and to replace the “cartoonish” style of the avatars due to computational platform limitations. However, VR already delivers strong Immersion and Presence where classic platforms fail to deliver. The experience within the project confirms that VR allows better communication among people. For instance, those who are of shy nature may engage with strangers more efficiently through quality conversation in VR meetings in comparison to ZOOM-style conversations or social media engagements. Here, while anonymity guaranteed by the text-based discussion social media platforms becomes often a vehicle for abuse and statements that are far from appropriate, those engagements are rarely of real value and in fact diminish the importance of human attention. What matters most nowadays is the quantity of the communication at the expense of its quality.
Another positive aspect of the VR is that while VR offers avatar representation that preserves privacy (unlike webcam) it still allows a great level of expressivity and non-verbal cues through hand movements, head & body movements, simulated gazing and lip-synch elements which are very pronounced and well synchronised in VR. Also, even though VR is still lacking in proper haptic feedback it makes possible to shake a hand or to reach out to another person, something which is literally impossible in other means of communication. The additional value of this technology is its impact on equality and discrimination. By letting the user to choose what to reveal and what to conceal VR can actually help to remove some of the major communication biases that are present even in in-person communication. Specifically, in VR the person’s sex, ethnicity, age, race can be easily removed from the equation through avatar of choice, that does not need to resemble the user. In addition voice alterations are available for better level of privacy. In this respect VR has a potential to alleviate some of the major challenges in terms of conscious and unconscious biases in communication.
In terms of affordances of VR, the simulation of physics in the Virtual venue brings elements often forgotten in daily communications and reminds of the importance of casual communications and meeting people when “passing by”. Those elements can be easily represented in VR as for instance, audio is directional and affected by distance. Therefore if a person gazes at another person, the receiver would experience different auditory feedback than if person would gaze elsewhere. Also if the receiver is too far, the voice would be very low and the avatar would have to lean or move forward to hear the other person. That element is important in a lecture hall setting where the audience can freely “gossip” and comment on the presentation in the back of the room and do not disturb the speakers on the stage. The same applies to coffee-breaks and small discussion groups always forming around the coffee tables. That kind of semi-formal communication is pivotal for networking and bonding in conferences and has being efficiently simulated in VR (“just without real coffee yet”).
Those advantages of VR over the teleconferencing or social media communications can have very strong implications for business, government, education and entertainment. Formal meetings can be much more engaging with many elements of the real world simulated very efficiently. Due to the next-level of the convergence in VR, all other channels discussed (telco, social media) can be in fact included in the VR communications and complement the interactions. VR can bring even more advantage by allowing simulation of 3D shapes and interactive boards and models and simulated environments co-exploration. Specific examples are city planning, medical research, engineering or new developments exploration. Applications to education include “school trips” to heritage sites around the world, a virtual classroom and lecture halls as well as virtual labs.
VR can bring some strong resolutions to the challenges faced in particular by the creative sector. VR can enable all kinds of artists, actors and storytellers to contribute and deliver their performances efficiently in a remote way. In this way impediments to cultural activities during pandemic time can be removed.
Read Full REPORT