...virtual reality (VR) hardware to help with my dream of learning and mastering 3d art programs. I have been also dabbling in VR trends ever since and have sampled many while trying to create the D(deepen) O(orient) T(transform) conflict resiliency model as an interactive learning experience and journey. While playing with 3D art tools is a bit like being a wizard in a Harry Potter world of visual magic, I have always found myself getting stuck with my creative flow and wanting to connect with people in VR who are equally struggling with making the worlds they dream of and can test this model and grow the world that will teach it with me. Basically, I have wanted to find my Hogwarts where I can learn my creative craft with peers at my side. Until this month, I’ve never found an app that fits my needs for the DOT model, and have been mostly biding my time waiting for someone to release an app that combines social interactive options and 3d art creation.
A few weeks ago I put on my headset for the first time in months and found a new app available to me called Horizon that described itself in beta and “invite only” (I later recalled that I had actually applied to be a part of the beta testing earlier this year). I clicked with curiosity and down the rabbit hole I went. I was first impressed with the handful of beta testers I met who were also relatively new to the game and novice world creators like me. Over the many hours I've spent in there since, we have often marveled at the easy to learn world creation tools that have intuitively come so naturally in collaboratively building and teaching each other tips and tricks on how to navigate and build our visions. I can only describe this experience to people who have never used virtual reality as similar to playing with legos or tinker toys as a kid (i.e., it's more fun when playing with siblings or friends!), but also having an almost endless supply of ‘block’ combinations and then getting to meet really interesting people along the way who are delightfully struggling along with you.
With the ongoing poor press around Facebook, I was surprised and a bit concerned at first to learn they are the developers of this program. However, I’ve had enough experience in the other virtual reality social connect apps (VR Chat, Altspace, RecRoom) that I could immediately sense the potential of this app to change how people experience VR and actually is positioned to be the main platform of a creative and diversity-inclusive culture that will embrace the flood of humans I believe are soon to arrive as first-time experiencers. A perfect storm of socially-isolating COVID and the recent affordability of VR hardware for the middle class citizen has collided in a potential superstorm of human interest and virtual reality access for the first time in history.
In Horizon you only have the options of 15 basic shapes, a few dozen colors, and some special effects, but like the basic blocks of legos, the world creation potential seems limitless. You can quickly create worlds that fill people with awe, horror, wonder, and most importantly, a sense of creative curiosity and connectedness, especially when you co-create them with your new “friends.” Some of the worlds I have created make me (and others who have visited) feel like I am walking through a Pixar film that is yet to be written. Other worlds (that I made in just a few hours) give the experience of being able to interact with animals in nature more intimately and contactually than anything I’ve experienced by attending a zoo or going on a safari. I’ve named my worlds things like “belong," "transcend," "ele-vate," and "sea me" and have a hard time figuring out if I like experiencing my own worlds or getting to meet people who are experiencing mine or other worlds more. I could go on and yet the part that feels the most important to get to in this blog is how all of this playful gadgetry and creative social bliss may be extremely short lived without an active effort by everyone involved to create conscious community together.
The bigger water we are all swimming in as humans has had increasing waves in the last few years of multiple social movements ( (e.g., #metoo, #BLM, etc) that call out poor behavior in dominant power structures and call us all in as humans to become more conscious of and ultimately dismantle the culture we live in that holds us in patterns which create a polarizing divisiveness and reinforce the scarcity-mindset hierarchy we have such a hard time seeing (like fish in water!).
In virtual reality, I believe that accountability and intentionality to create a conscious connective space that includes diverse people have seemed to me to be extremely lacking over the years of exploration and connection with others in these spaces. This leads me to realizing that while Facebook has become so increasingly publicly reeled for being a discriminating and toxic organization, this organizational “group creature” now has the potential to use their now infamous online platform (VR users will now be signed up through their public real-life community Facebook accounts even though it appears to have the option to "un-link them" immediately afterwards) to create the space for people to find and connect with each other in a socially accountable and healthier way than ever before.
Where might this all be going? My hope for humans and a vision of VR is that it will eventually be a socially supportive and enlightening space instead of an escapist dystopia where the outcasts of society retreat and become addicted to looking at their projected identities endlessly in the mirror (e.g., VR Chat). Someday soon, when VR is as common place as cellphones are now, I hope we will be living a non-dystopian version of the Matrix where many might put their headsets on for a few minutes or a couple hours occasionally to resonate and upgrade our interpersonal consciousness and sense of safety before emerging into our physical reality ready to try out new social skills we learned while “inside.” Some might call this naive but I don't believe we will find and create this centering space until we intentionally work towards getting there--together. Sometimes I even contemplate that VR could be the electronic manifestation of the collective consciousness Carl Jung philosophized existed.
I also believe that the carefully invited community Horizon has been creating in the beta version could also vanish like a poof of smoke without a significant collaborative effort from the company and the group of beta experiencers and creators already inside it to create a playful educational funnel for those coming into the program on how to build conscious community together. This would include how to recognize and address micro-aggressions and how to most importantly be curious and brave enough to venture into becoming "world creators" themselves. So many beta testers in Horizon have said something heartbreakingly similar when I share my hope with them. It goes something along the lines of, “yeh, that sounds great, but it’s all going to fall apart when the flood arrives.” I counter that with, “yes, maybe, and you are definitely going to be right if we believe conscious community is impossible and expect Horizon to fall apart.”
The only way this culture will not become another toxic and creatively-flaccid app is if we all choose differently together. Micro-aggressions that allow or amplify “othering” or objectification around race (e.g., racism), gender (e.g., sexism), sexuality (e.g., homophobia/transphobia), physical space (I don’t know this word, but I came up with “flooding” recently when it happened to me), or neglecting basic human rituals of greeting or closure (e.g., ghosting) can be socially contagious and suppress someone’s sense of belonging and safety within seconds no matter how established they believe themselves to be. While Horizon has a button on the wrist that you can push to “go to your safe space” if you are overwhelmed, all this does is socially isolate you from whatever moment you are in, and ultimately will just create an increasing culture of “flight” and disconnect in users that do not learn conflict resiliency and how to redirect unpleasant or harmful social behaviors.
I believe we can create “journeys” together that teach social decency and clever interventions in playful and non-confrontational ways. Part of being human is making awkward mistakes and we all have at one time or another stepped on each other’s virtual “toes” or re-enacted the social traumas we encountered in the bigger culture we came from that maintains a hierarchy out of non-negotiable characteristics like skin color or gender.
Being a part of this opening wave in Facebook Horizon is like a dream come true that I never knew I had until I was there playing and meeting some extremely fun and creative humans. Now I am dreaming even bigger and hoping Facebook and the Horizon community will collaborate and help with these playful plans to intentionally design a contagiously engaging series of educational quests that teach people who are desperate to connect and grow together by going on an experiential journey on how to belong on purpose in VR and ultimately become the creative wizards we are all secretely hoping to befriend.
I suspect there is a narrow window of time we are in (with a release date likely somewhere soon considering the before mentioned points about COVID and the shipdate of Oculus Quest 2 only weeks away). The human flood is a question of when versus if it will arrive and will be full of lonely and creatively-curious humans who deserve to be greeted by a vibrant community of sharing and inspiring worlds and world-creators. Excitement can breed neediness however and I fear that the creative centers of these oxytocin-rich brains and creatively generous brains of the wizards navigating the avatars around me will be drained and shut down by people who want to be empowered before they have learned how to creatively empower each other. Here’s to hoping this new Horizon is for real and will choose to help with organizing the ‘sages’ and ‘wizards’ already walking in these worlds to do the most social good and have a safe and delightful time doing it. Creating world “tools” to teach this conscious culture will be a vital part of this transformative introduction. In the meantime, I will enjoy this beautiful in-between time and hope to see you on there soon to create some amazing worlds with me.
These are reflections on VR community design experiments, collaborations, and my individual user experience. How do we connect through the virtual reality medium in a way that enhances our connection with self and our real life relationships?