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Exploring the next travel destination together with all of your friends, checking out this hip new gallery in the city and afterwards awakening your inner child in an amusement park. Scheduling a group meet-up with friends has never been so easy. So effortless. Yet, there is this nagging curiosity of how all of them look like now. Haven’t seen any one of them in a while. And haven’t left home in a while either. Let aside visiting an amusement park or a gallery in real life… But why go outside when anything you need is already here?

Just start the app. Put on the headset. Ready. Set. Go.

As announced at the annual F8 developer conference, Facebook launched the beta test of an app called Spaces. It offers a world in which you can “Capture the moment. Create memories of your fun moments in VR, take selfies, and share them with your Facebook friends.”

Facebook users can now dive into virtual environments built out of 360 visuals. But this is not necessarily an exclusive experience. A novelty is that they can add their contacts via Messenger video call. Avatars, based on a photo of their choice, can enjoy shared experiences and eventually create a virtual memory. One they can even capture by using a selfie-stick.

What sounds like fun, can be also evaluated as a paradigm-shifting way of social interaction and personality perception. Research investigating the effect digitally constructed realities have on personalities usually predicts a dystopia in which human interactions will be corroded by digitization, but also a utopia accessible to everybody, where social participation flourishes. An alienating distraction or an added value: How social is VR?

Dystopia as usual

New media and social isolation: The fear of not developing one’s social skills due to the lack of real-life interaction has been overshadowing the field of communication science ever since writing was invented. Even Plato warned his fellows about the “devastating” effect of script on the human brain, since he firmly believed that writing would replace remembering on the long-term. Thousands of years later research still tries to show the negative impact that excessive smartphone usage has on social skills such as empathy and attentiveness. However, at the same time there is scientific evidence that the use of online social networks can strengthen civic participation and social ties. It is hence highly likely that virtual reality spaces will be accessed for entertainment, educational and even sociopolitical purposes in the future, just like any other medium (sorry Plato). But what about the potential alienation from other people and from oneself?

The Ego in VR

Can the ego, the self, develop in virtual reality? Leaning on theory, there is the social self, constructed by personal behavior, and the material self, the one constructed by daily experience. And both of them meet in VR spaces.

The reason is that consciousness and physiology follow the same rules in VR as in real life. First, the brain imposes on the body specific moves to fulfil a goal (such as the change of the VR environment or the invitation of friends to the experience). Second, every decision in the VR app has an effect on the real world, since the people you meet are not fictional, but friends and family. Thusly, personal behavior and daily experience follow the same principles as in real life. The social self and the material self: Both can grow and develop in apps like Facebook Spaces, AltspaceVR, vTime or Rec Room.

A story with many endings

You see, exploring the next group travel destination together with all of your friends, checking out this hip new gallery in the city in VR is easy and effortless. And free, open for each and every member of society. An open space where the travel-lovers find the spot of their dreams, the activists a podium to speak and collectively plan social change, while the long-distance friends find a place to reunite. Virtual reality is no replacement, but an added value to the real world. Going outside and exploring new environments is much more fun when all the preparation you need is right there.
Just start the app. Wear the headset. Ready. Set. Go.

A story can have many endings. By taking the next step towards virtual reality, FB paved the way for a new chapter of media history; How this will end is upon us?

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