As the technology behind Virtual Reality (VR) is becoming more advanced, and the tools are more widely available, the world is paying a lot of attention to the role it could have in our lives. And since social isolation has become a much more widespread and recognized issue throughout the pandemic, VR’s potential impact on social isolation has been given much consideration.
What clues do we have?
While most people might not have much experience with virtual reality yet, the impact of virtual worlds and interaction has undergone observation and debate for a long time. People have immersed themselves in online gaming and virtual worlds for years, perhaps to escape or as a way to connect with others. Many studies have examined whether internet use and gaming can become addictive.
But in recent times, studies have also looked at the potential benefits, such as the fact that gaming can help combat social isolation. A 2018 MIT study suggests that experiencing content through VR is better at reducing feelings of isolation than watching the same content on a screen. So as digital experiences become more virtual, how can we expect that to impact our social lives and the phenomenon of isolation?
What can VR offer?
The hallmark of VR is immersion. With screens and viewports at the center of most digital experiences, resources have gone into making those encounters feel more immersive. But VR aims to provide simulated environments in which users can have fully immersive experiences. Tech companies large and small are working toward next-generation multisensory VR.
Regardless of a person’s physical location, VR games and applications provide opportunities for people to connect. In the future, more advanced technology could make it possible to simulate being in the same space with loved ones from afar, joining a virtual meeting room with a distributed team, or planning virtual events to meet and interact with new people from around the world.
Having more realistic social interactions can significantly impact mental health and social well-being, especially for those who are geographically isolated from family, friends, and community.
What are the potential risks of VR?
While discussion and research center on the potential benefits of VR, the potential risks also have to be considered. Many people have experienced anxiety about socializing in person after the pandemic, which could be an example of how physical isolation from others could impact future social behaviors.
If people become more comfortable with and accustomed to interacting in a virtual world, could they come to prefer that over interacting with people in person? And, if so, is that just as healthy as long as one doesn’t feel isolated, or will it have some yet-to-be uncovered effects on mental health? To fully answer these questions, researchers will need well-controlled, long-term studies.
Is there a definite answer?
The results of existing studies and experiences show that VR has a lot of potential as a tool for fighting social isolation and facilitating meaningful, engaging experiences. Still, the technology is too new and limited to know what kind of effects it could have in the long run.
When uncertain times lead to social isolation and so many aspects of people’s lives—including work, school, doctor’s appointments, and even banking —are becoming reliant on digital platforms, a shift toward a more virtual reality seems natural and inevitable.
But suppose we want to ensure this technology enhances our lives and solves problems such as social isolation. In that case, the design must be human-centric, accessible, with clear intent, and with the users’ best interests in mind.