I Spent Nine Hours In Social Virtual Reality and It Was Weird But Wonderful!

For nine hours, during the What’s The (Healthcare) Fix Conference and its live video stream, I hosted a chat room in social virtual reality using @AltspaceVR and the recently released Oculus Go VR headset. I’ll describe some technical stuff first, and then the more social.

Let’s get the weird technical stuff out of the way!

What I was specifically interested in was this: After nine continuous hours in virtual reality, how would the real world look like immediately after removing my VR headset?

First, while the Oculus Go has a 101-degree field of view, I notice a fish-eye effect in which perhaps about 120- or 130-degrees is compressed into that 101-degree view. Therefore, given how human nervous systems adapt and compensate, I expected a brief opposite effect, some sort of tunnel vision (like looking through low-power binoculars). And this is exactly what occurred, though it only lasted about five minutes. Second, and this struck me most, “reality” looked abnormally drab! In retrospect, I should have expected this. Virtual reality is full of bright colors. The real world looks drab in contrast. Again, I should emphasize, these aftereffects went away after a few minutes.

I don’t expect to spend nine continuous hours in VR again, though I might still do it if special circumstances called for it. But I’m glad I tried it for a number of reasons. First, someday folks may actually go to work in virtual reality, and nine hours approximates the length of the traditional work day (tho most people I know work much longer than that). Second, I bumped into several social VR users who are retired, and already spend many hours every day in social virtual reality. From my experience I can somewhat extrapolate to their experience. Third, my Oculus Go ($199-$249 on Amazon), with an external micro-USB power source, worked continuously for 9-hours. It was only when I exited the @AltspaceVR app and tried to start a different app, that the VR headset froze and I had to force a reboot. Since Oculus Go is brand new, I was surprised it worked so well for so long with no problems.

Now for the social!

I don’t have access to statistics, except how many registered (25) and how many emojis were sent during the event (272 hearts, happy and sad faces, hands waving and clapping, streaming upward over our avatar heads). But I’d guesstimate about hundred different participants hung out and chatted with me during the nine hours. Some appeared, stayed for an hour, left, and then came back later, several multiple times (“Excuse me, I’m picking up my sister at the train station, I’ll see you later!”) During several peaks, perhaps almost 20 of us milled around, sometimes in separate groups. Just as in the real world, the farther away you are from someone, the lower the audio volume. So two different groups can have separate conversations, tho, I could often faintly hear the other groups converse.

Sometimes folks voluntarily helped out. At one point I was having a one-on-one discussion with someone in the corner of the room, while everyone else was congregated on the other side. However, as new people arrived, I could hear earlier arrivals giving the same welcome speech, almost word-for-word to new arrivals.

What was my orienting welcome speech? (Some of the early arrivals, who stayed hours, heard it dozens of time!)

Excuse me everyone, I’d like to welcome [user name]! (available over their head if you click on them with your controller). I hope you don’t mind me giving you a short introduction to what is going on here. I’ve been holding a series of events about healthcare. Last week we discussed science fiction and healthcare. The week before we talked about telehealth and virtual reality. This week is an experiment. These events are usually an hour long. But today I’m in VR for nine hours, because there is an online event called What The Fix! It’s about listening to patients tell their stories. If you go that URL over there, in that wall of words, you can watch that video live stream. What we’re doing here is sort of a version of that. You don’t have to answer this question, but it is the question that has mostly been guiding our conversation. Have you been ill, or been close to someone who was ill, and did it change you in some way. Perhaps change your philosophy of life? Or perhaps form an opinion about healthcare? As I said, you are free to simply listen to us. Or, if anything strikes a chord, please share your thoughts with us.

And then I’d pause, sometimes for 30 seconds. Usually, eventually, the new arrival said something very thoughtful. Something that triggered others to say something, often supportive, or relaying a similar experience or thought. Once in a great while the new arrival figuratively looked like a deer caught in our headlights and simply vanished. Which usually caused some chuckles and comments (Well, we scared them away, didn’t we!) Once in while the answer was, no, at this moment I have nothing to share. But then later, after they’d listen to several other tell their stories, or after seeing several arrivals do so, they stepped forward again to contribute.

In nine hours, listening to a hundred people, I heard a lot of stories. I also heard lot of strangers offering a lot of support to each other. For long stretches, sometimes thirty or forty minutes or so, I said nothing. I, and sometimes a half a dozen others, simply pivoted our avatar heads, and therefor our implied gaze, back-and-forth between two or three interlocutors.

Since to me this was a grand experiment, and I therefore did not know what to expect, I had resigned myself to the thought that perhaps I might be alone, in virtual reality, for nine hours. It is possible to bring up a web browser to check email, Twitter, news, videos, etc. That was my plan B, which I never executed, because I was never alone during the nine hours. Several times we were down to two people, one other person plus me. I think they felt they would feel guilty about leaving! So they stayed until someone showed up.

Me: Hey, you don’t have to stay to keep me company, if you have something else to do, but I do appreciate you hanging out with me!

Them: Nah, I got nothing else going on at the moment. I’ll stick around; see who else comes a long.

We ran out of things to say. One time we simply stood there, waiting, looking around, not saying anything.

Them: Hey, there’s someone!

I turn around to look out the window, to see someone has materialized outside in the park. They come closer. I launch into my welcome speech. More people show up. Eventual there is bunch again. Conversation is flowing. And I look around, and that one person who had been so supportive, had quietly departed! I hope I bump into them again!

Again, I can’t do justice to the stories I heard, or how complete strangers so supported each other. This was a unique experience for me in several ways. In addition to its nine-hour length, it was about a “touchy-feely” subject I usually don’t talk about. (And I did indeed tell my own story, several times.) I most easily chat about technical topics: telehealth, science fiction in healthcare, augmented reality in healthcare (an upcoming social VR event I’m hosting). I was actually a bit fearful about whether I would be up to some of the more emotional aspects. I found myself falling back on my experience during medical school, when I participated in a twice-a-week group therapy session (addressing people in round-robin fashion, “How did you feel about that?”, etc). This sort of thing is definitely not my forte. But I’m glad I took the risk and did it. I got a lot out of it. From sharing my own story, feeling inspired by stories I heard, and being impressed and thankful for others’ supportive reactions to the shared stories.

About ninety percent of the attendees come from the AltspaceVR community. They saw the event featured, or they happened to be logged in and saw the live event. I “friended” everyone I could. This works like Facebook, not like Twitter, in that social associations are reciprocal. When you go online, you see who else is online, at home (in their homespace), or participating in an event.

Of special note are attendees who came from my healthcare Twitter community! I’d like to give a shout out to you! Thank you for participating! Thank you for noting your #socialVR experience on Twitter (see tweets below). I hope you come again, to one of my future events. I hope you get a VR headset so you can dive into the deep end of the pool, so to speak. And I hope you eventually host your own events in social VR, I can attend them. Just as with the relationship between social video and Twitter, I see a very positive and synergistic relationship between social VR and Twitter. I’d like to follow on Twitter the people I meet in social VR. Social VR can generate great content to publish and tweet about. Though one has to be careful in this regard. Due to the sensitive and personal nature of shared stories about illness, I did not stream video to Periscope (or Youtube). And, just as I loved meeting people I know only through Twitter via group social video channels such as Blab or Firetalk, I love meeting and getting to know my Twitter friends better, in social VR!

In closing, here some tweets from, and about, my Twitter friends who visited me for a taste if social VR. Most of you used one of the 2D PC/Mac/Android clients. I hope you get a VR headset (Oculus Go is the least expensive option at the moment, but there are several non-VR headset options) and we get together again soon!

Thank you Becky!

Thank you for stopping by, Monica! (Think we were at about the four or five hour mark, and we were getting a bit silly, so when you popped it may have seemed like we’d gone off the rails, so to speak! We did settle down in a bit and returned to more serious discussion of substantive issues.)

Thank you for participating Lisa!

Kimberly, Grace, I hope to see you even sooner in #socialVR! Check out my next #HealthSystemsChat (Augmented Reality in Healthcare).

PS What people saw when they arrived (plus, of course, other avatars representing other people).