Reality, it’s one of those things that we all feel we mostly have a handle on. Most of the time, when someone asks you “Who are you?” you probably have a reasonable answer. You’re somebody’s friend, you’re someone who does a particular thing, you’re someone who has certain physical attributes, certain personality traits. You’re a big venn diagram of all of these things, and in the center of that diagram, is your sense of self, your sense of who you are.
When it comes to Virtual Reality, however, that becomes a different question with a vastly different answer – an answer you may not even know, yet. I’ve been spending quite a lot of time lately in a few different Social VR applications. Each one has a different approach to how you appear to others, and to yourself. Rec Room, for example, has a lot of customization options to allow you to change hair, accessories, and your shirt, and you appear to others as a fairly cartoonish head, hands and torso – so you can look how you want, as long as how you want to appear is not realistic at all. Your eyes and other facial features are 2D, drawn on.
BigScreen on the other hand, limits you further in some respects, giving you just a head and hands, though now you do have more realistic facial features – still in the stylized realm, but you feel a little less like you’re talking to a cartoon, and again, things like hairstyle, skin color, eye shape, accessories are all customizable.
Then there’s Altspace. In Altspace you’re pretty limited – there are a few different robot avatars, including one that’s basically a colored q-tip, a masculine robot, and a stylized female and male avatar. Customization here is quite limited – your only options are to change the color of your robot, or the color of your humanoid avatar. All the humans look basically the same, though, very little individuality is possible here.
Finally the other place I’ve been spending some time lately is High Fidelity. The default avatars here are pretty limited too – there’s a generic space alien default, and a couple of female and male avatars on the market place there, but one of the interesting things here is that you can also upload your own avatar. Of the avatars available, two of them are very realistic human scans, that move quite believably as the user talks. It’s easy to forget that the person you’re talking to doesn’t actually look like that in reality. One of the things that it’s possible for you to do, in High Fidelity though, is to upload a 3D scan of yourself, and to walk around in Virtual Reality as your own self. There’s also a separate company working on allowing you to play as your own 3D scanned person in a lot of different game experiences – including things like Skyrim. The company in question, Uraniom recently made a miniom of me – their name for your scanned avatar. The thing is, it’s both great, because the avatar really looks realistically like me, and also terrible, because it really looks realistically like me.
I’m not sure that I want to play as a realistic version of myself in virtual reality, because one of the appealing parts of VR is the ability to not be yourself. I also have an avatar in High Fidelity that’s a more stylized version of me based on a scan. I’m more comfortable with that, because it looks like me, but not too much. Other people I’ve talked to, though, don’t want to ever look like themselves in VR, but they’d much rather look like an avatar that they may have identified with for a really long time – it may not look like the Reality version of themselves, but it still represents, to them, who they are.
There are other things to consider, too, when deciding if you want to be yourself in VR or not. In the real world, you can’t choose your ethnicity – or at least, you can’t choose what your ethnicity appears to be to those around you. In VR, though, you can choose to avoid the negative connotations of being black, or being female, at least visually (verbally could be another thing entirely). If you can do so, do you? How much of your identity is tied up in your gender or skin color? How about if you’re an amputee, would you decide to make your avatar reflect that? Or would you rather have all four limbs if that’s a possibility for you in virtuality? I don’t have an answer for any of these questions, partly because I think that this is something that people will decide for themselves, based on the limitations of each system. I do think that your behavior in some way is governed by how you, and others, are represented. The more realistic the avatar, the more likely someone is to treat you exactly as if you are standing in front of them – the more generic you appear, the more stylized, the less likely it is that you will feel real to the other person. We’re hardwired biologically to recognize faces, to look someone else in the eyes and recognize that there is a person inside there. If I decide to be a kitten in VR, does that detract from how other people see me? If one day, my job involves attending meetings in VR, if I don’t look like me, is that a deal breaker? Will wearing your own skin one day be the same as those jobs where you must wear a uniform? What if I just want to be a slightly prettier, more appealing version of myself? If we can all be super attractive in VR, will we never return to reality, because your meat suit isn’t as appealing as your real life suit?
I don’t have the answer to any of these questions – but I do think that the skin we wear will determine how we are treated in VR, and so determining who we are, and how we as designers and developers allow people to represent themselves, will have ongoing implications for things like community management in the long term. When we allow people to answer the question “Who am I?” with a wide variety of options, it may be that we end up with a whole different virtual society that looks nothing like anything in existence right now. And given current events, maybe that’s a good thing.