How Virtual Reality Facilitates Social Connection

You’re sitting on a train across from someone you’ve never met. You fall into conversation, chatting about everything from your hobbies to relationships to life milestones.

One other detail—you’re wearing an Oculus Rift. The train is virtual, and you and your new acquaintance appear as avatars. How does this affect your level of engagement? Your ability to establish an emotional connection?

The answers carry big implications for marketers, who are eager to understand how people will respond to virtual reality. While broad adoption is years away, the technology—which allows people to feel physically immersed in settings and experiences without actually being there—is becoming more affordable and sophisticated. Early adopters are using virtual reality for everything from gaming to healthcare, and 66% of people surveyed in the US believe that it will become a part of everyday life.1

To get a glimpse of this future, Facebook IQ studied the impact of participants accessing virtual reality via an Oculus Rift headset on a cornerstone of human communication: a one-on-one conversation. We commissioned Neurons Inc, an applied neuroscience consultancy, to compare how participants in the US responded both cognitively and emotionally to conversing in virtual reality versus having a conversation face to face.

Neurons Inc divided 60 participants who had not previously met in pairs and assigned half to have a short conversation in virtual reality and half to do so in person. All participants wore EEG headsets to analyze their brain signals and measure their level of comfort and engagement. The participants in the virtual reality group interacted in an environment resembling the interior of a train car—a setting in which two people might naturally fall into conversation.

The research revealed that participants—especially introverts—responded positively to meeting in virtual reality and were able to establish authentic relationships within the virtual environment. Read on for other key findings and to learn more about how marketers can prepare for living in a virtual world.

 

Participants quickly felt at ease in virtual reality 

Many of our virtual reality participants described themselves as “late adopters,” and most had never experienced virtual reality before. Despite this, the average EEG results for participants in the virtual reality group expressed consistently positive motivation levels* and demonstrated cognitive effort levels** that decreased over time. This means that they were inclined to lean into the conversation and found it easier to do so as time passed.

 

I still have the same mental refreshment as when you go away on vacation

 

Communication flows in virtual reality 

From telegrams to texts, every new form of communication has had to prove that it’s easy, enjoyable and effective to gain broad adoption. Virtual reality meets this bar when it comes to one-on-one conversations: when we analyzed the EEG results of participants who chatted in virtual reality, we found that on average they were within the optimal range of cognitive effort. To put it another way, participants in virtual reality were neither bored nor overstimulated. They were also in the ideal zone for remembering and processing information.

 

Find the sweet spot for cognitive effort

I didn't feel any difficulty in expressing myself at all

 

Another indicator that the virtual experience was pleasant? Time flew: while the virtual reality conversations lasted 20 minutes, on average people guessed they had taken 13.

 

Virtual reality kindles a warm connection—especially for introverts.

When we interviewed people individually after their virtual conversations, an average of 93% said that they liked their virtual conversation partner. Some told us they could envision going to the bar, working out, attending a sports event or working with their new acquaintance.

And people we identified via a short survey as more introverted responded particularly positively, perhaps because interacting via an avatar reduced their self-consciousness and increased their confidence. While the EEG results of both introverts and extroverts indicated they were engaged*** in virtual reality, on average introverts’ results showed they were actually more engaged by meeting in virtual reality than by meeting in person. The opposite was true for extroverts.

 

Introverts can easily forge friendships in virtual reality

This is a pretty subtle way to get to know someone.

 

Virtual reality unlocks authenticity

We asked all research participants to start their conversations with small talk, then we prompted them to discuss more personal topics. People in the virtual reality group told us they were surprised by how comfortable they felt revealing this personal information in the new environment. Several noted that interacting in virtual reality can reduce appearance-based judgments.

 

I believe [virtual reality] can take a sense of prejudice out of the conversation

 

What it means for marketers 

Facebook believes that in the next 10 years virtual reality will transform how people communicate and experience the world. Check out the recommendations below to help your brand prepare.

Keep an open mind about your audience. Virtual reality has broad appeal. Our social interaction research revealed that virtual reality is an effective way to communicate with a broad audience. Men, women, introverts and extroverts alike feel engaged in virtual reality and can engage authentically within it.

Plan for unlimited possibility. When we asked the virtual reality participants in our study how they envisioned themselves using the technology in the future, the most common response was to connect with friends and family. But virtual reality is for much more than social interaction—according to a 2015 Facebook IQ survey, people in the US can see themselves using it for travel, shopping, entertainment and work.[1] Consider how your brand might use virtual reality to help make people’s lives more convenient, connected and fun.

 

People want to use virtual reality for professional, social, and entertainment purposes.

 

Take a spin with 360 video. It will take time to understand how businesses can effectively create for and drive real results with virtual reality, which currently has a small installed base of devices and thus low marketing reach. In the meantime, the best way to prepare for this new technology is to experiment with immersive 360 photo and videos that can be experienced through Facebook, Oculus Rift and Samsung Gear VR, powered by Oculus. To learn more about producing 360 video for Facebook, visit facebook360.fb.com.

Need more inspiration? Here are a few examples from trail-blazing organizations and brands, ranging from the Dali Museum to MasterCard to Lowe’s.

Definitions
* Neurons Inc defined motivation as a measure of a person’s attraction to or avoidance of a stimulus. EEG scores above 0.5 indicate a positive reaction, and scores below 0.5 indicate a negative reaction.
** Neurons Inc defined cognitive effort as a representation of the amount of resources the brain uses to process information. The optimal ranges for engagement, learning and memory are EEG scores between .055 and .075. Lower scores indicate boredom, and higher scores indicate stress and information overload.
*** Neurons Inc defined engagement as when EEG results show both high arousal and positive motivation. (High arousal and negative motivation, on the other hand, indicate stress or fear.)
Sources
1.“Tech Transformations Study” by Crowd DNA (Facebook-commissioned online survey of 1,000 people ages 18–64 in the US), Oct–Nov 2015.
Source unless otherwise specified: “Social Interaction in VR” by Neurons Inc. (Facebook-commissioned study of 60 people ages 18–51 in the US), Oct 2016.