When I use social media in my daily life, it more or less involves the following user scenarios:
Facebook: I post a picture or a link and think up an amusing phrase to go with it that people will want to share – in the hope of gaining as many likes as possible. The more likes it gets, the more likely the post will show up in other timelines.
Twitter: I hone the precise formulation of a tweet to generate maximum reach in the form of retweets, mentions and likes – Sascha Lobo once said he thinks about the exact wording of a tweet for up to an hour.
Instagram: I take about five photos of a given theme, choose the best one and then modify it with filters and other processing tools. Only then do I post the picture in the Instagram stream.
Snapchat: I press the camera button... and it's done.
This is an oversimplification, of course, but there is a fundamental difference between user scenarios with Snapchat on the one hand, and Facebook, Twitter or Instagram on the other. In a contribution to TechCrunch, Mike Wadhera, founder and CEO of Sports Feed, translated this difference into technical terms. He talks about a transition from the "Information Age" to the "Experience Age."
Wadhera says of the Information Age:
"Accumulation manifests in a digital profile where my identity is the sum of all the information I've saved - text, photos, videos, web pages. (…) In the Information Age we represented ourselves with this digital profile."
In contrast, the Experience Age has little to do with building a profile:
"Mobile has changed how we view digital identity. (…) The result is that the profile is no longer the center of the social universe. In the Experience Age you are not a profile. You are simply you."
Wadhera calls Snapchat the best example of what counts in the Experience Age: Developed for mobile user scenarios, Snapchat provides the most unfiltered view possible of the user – "Look, here I am!" – independent, at least to outsiders, of any metrics such as likes, retweets or followers.
Snapchat is not the only evidence of this development; Facebook's live video also aligns with the spirit of the age by delivering unfiltered views of the user – just look at the unimaginable success of Chewbacca Mask Lady Candace Payne on Facebook Live.
But what do the Experience Age and Snapchat have to do with virtual reality? If the future of the social web will increasingly involve unfiltered experiences in the form of snapchats or live videos, mobile VR is the medium for enjoying the most intensive experiences. Of course you don't need VR glasses to find the Chewbacca Mask Lady video funny. But pushed further, communication using virtual reality could benefit from the unique type of presence that this technology makes possible. If it's becoming more and more important to share our own experiences with people, perhaps we'll need a new medium for this in the future – and social VR might be this medium.
Snapchat itself is currently experimenting with augmented reality technologies. And it's certainly not by chance that Marc Zuckerberg bought Oculus VR two years ago – the company behind the world's largest social network recently established a VR team and is also cooperating intensively with Samsung around mobile VR technology. Google itself is expanding its mobile VR efforts with the Daydream platform, and experimenting with related apps.
There have already been some first attempts to bring social VR into our daily lives – such as AltspaceVR, an app that puts your avatar into the virtual reality of a room with other people who are located in different places in the physical world. Tech demos such as that presented by Facebook at this year's F8 also showcase early experimental phases. But even Facebook admits there is still much to accomplish before we get to a functioning social VR: Depicting the multifaceted nature of human communication in a virtual environment means more than simply placing avatars in the same virtual space. Facial expressions, eye movements, body language – all these must first be rendered as precisely as possible, otherwise the notorious uncanny valley problems will loom. And technically we are not yet there.
But maybe for now it's not really about depicting one-to-one human communication in virtual reality. The first step might be to send experiences, such as a special event, to other people in virtual reality – as a VR film or 360-degree image in a message, for example, to provide as realistic a view as possible of the experience. And if that becomes operational for the masses – which will require the corresponding smartphone hardware – the next step would be not only to share experiences with people, but to experience them together – in virtual reality.