Fran gracefully glides around the grand ballroom, sparkling pink ball gown flowing at her heals and the firm grip of her son’s arm around her waist. They are surrounded by friends and family as they elegantly move around the room in perfect harmony, looking as though they must have practiced for hours. Fran is celebrating her 90th birthday in style, and although Parkinson’s disease has limited her mobility over the last decade, today technology is enabling the joy of movement she knew when she was 20.
“Memories are real. If you’re dancing in a ballroom in a virtual world or in a ballroom in Portland, Oregon — you were dancing in a ballroom. It was an experience,” Donna Z. Davis, Ph.D, the director of the strategic communications program at the University of Oregon. She witnessed the power of virtual environments to heal and help real people like Fran. “This is not about replacing, it is about augmenting. It’s technological augmentation in a way that provides for them beyond the capabilities of the physical world. So somebody without legs or with Parkinson’s can go dance. Someone who lives in isolation can have a social life.”
Power to heal
Davis has been working in the virtual reality space for over 10 years. The last three years her focus, through the support of a National Science Foundation grant, has been studying embodiment in VR spaces and the role that the body plays in shaping the mind. Her findings along with the results of several other studies indicate that there is a link between our physical selves and our digital selves, or avatars. What we see our bodies do on screen can positively impact what our bodies can do in the real world. Davis was first introduced to this phenomenon while working with Fran and her daughter, Barbie. As Fran enjoyed navigating her virtual world with ease, she began to have the confidence to do more physically demanding tasks in the physical world.
After meeting Fran and Barbie, Davis and her colleague, Tom Boellstorff at UC Irvine, were invited to join the newly formed virtual support group for others suffering from Parkinson’s. They have been meeting virtually for over seven years and Fran has developed a following of support group participants that refers to this healing power of virtual reality as “the Fran effect.”
Although Davis primarily works with the “ability diverse” or those who are challenged in both visible and invisible ways, she believes the benefits are not limited to this population. “How many of us are trapped inside a body or a place that doesn’t allow us to really live our lives in a way that we feel capable of? These technologies may open those doors in really exciting ways.”
Above: Donna Davis, far right, celebrates Fran’s 90th birthday with members of their virtual support group
New technologies, new opportunities
While much of her work over the last decade was done in a 3D environment on a 2D screen, Davis is pioneering therapeutic applications in the more immersive social 3D platforms like Sansar and High Fidelity. While this new medium provides increased immersion and freedom from physical limitations, it also provides additional accessibility challenges. Currently these platforms don’t rely on text chat and instead use voice technology as the primary means of communication. This makes it difficult for someone with speech and hearing impairments to use the platform successfully. Hand controllers coupled with physical movement are also required to navigate these virtual spaces, which is impossible for those suffering from debilitating physical conditions. However, Davis and her research partner and cultural anthropologist, Tom Boellstorff, have been working with the teams developing these platforms to help ensure they support the needs of their users.
Above: Tom Boellstorff (center) and Cecii Zapien helps Cody with a headset and controllers in order to experience the 3D virtual world. They are accompanied by Linden Lab executive, Bjorn Laurin.
Davis and Boellstorff recently visited Linden Lab, Second Life’s creators, to try to co-opt these new immersive tools for the unique needs of their research population. They were accompanied by Cody, a man who has suffered from severe physical challenges with cerebral palsy resulting from a tragic childhood accident. Cody can’t move his hands or arms which would typically render hand controllers useless, however Cody’s caregiver placed the ‘hand’ controller on Cody’s foot allowing him to experience, for the first time, his real body ‘moving’ his 3D avatar’s arms.
Caught on film as part of an upcoming documentary entitled “Our Digital Selves,” Cody’s joy of experiencing this type of movement was undeniable. The kicking movement required to move his avatar’s arms not only produced a feeling of joy, it is also a vital part of the work he does on a regular basis with this physical therapist.
Davis believes making something seen as a chore, such as physical therapy, a joyful experience can be a powerful motivator. “Immersive environments can help motivate patients to do painful or difficult physical therapy movements. Make it something that’s fun, make it joyful. How do you create an opportunity that gets people to go beyond themselves in healthy and supportive ways? Using the virtual world for physical therapy can help create that opportunity.”
Above: Donna Davis and Cody during their recent visit to Linden Lab.
Since Davis began her pioneering work almost a decade ago, there have been many additional studies linking virtual reality with healing outcomes and pain management. Several studies have focused on using virtual technologies to help with chronic pain and conditions such as ‘phantom limb pain’ often experienced by amputee patients. One such study determined that VR can “trick” the brain into believing the patient is using the limb in the virtual environment, thereby alleviating the sensory conflict of not having use of the limb in the real world. The increased sense of presence and immersion afforded by newer VR technologies can often be enough of a distraction to help patients manage painful conditions without the use of highly addictive pain medications. This fact has made some established medical institutions in the US slow to ratify the new methods for fear of alienating the powerful pharmaceutical lobby.
Given the amount of new research showing the potential of VR to heal both emotional and physical conditions, it’s no surprise that many innovative VR companies not bound by traditional methods have stepped up to help find new solutions to old problems. One of the most successful applications is the use of VR to treat PTSD. Virtually Better, a company that Dr. Skip Rizzo and his team out of UCLA founded, developed a simulation that would re-create the conditions that Iraq war veterans experienced. “Virtual Iraq” proved successful, helping treat over 70 percent of PTSD sufferers, and that has now become a standard accepted treatment by the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. They also support applications of VR-based therapy for aerophobia, acrophobia, glossophobia, and substance abuse.
Another U.S.-based company, Firsthand, has developed a platform to help manage chronic and acute pain. The 3D immersive, game-like environment uses bio-feedback sensors to help patients regulate physical activities, like breathing, in order to calm the mind and promote mindfulness. Their website claims that “patients can use a technology solution for pain management with no pharmaceutical side effects.”
Physical and occupational therapy is another field that benefits from the advancements in VR technology. Companies like Mindmaze and VRHealth offer platforms that help practioners’ administer various types of VR physical therapy treatments. MindMotion, developed by Mindmaze, creates virtual environments therapists can customize for a patient’s preferences and needs. These virtual enhancements motivate them to be more consistent and get the most from their prescribed exercise programs. The platform also allows for real-time multisensory feedback, so patients can monitor their own performance.
There are also several companies building platforms to help therapists and counselors leverage these new technologies within their private practice. Limbixoffers clinicians a ‘plug and play’ VR therapy solution and Psious offers a monthly subscription package that includes VR therapy training, a platform enabling VR sessions with clients, marketing support and client session reporting.
We are just beginning to understand the true potential for immersive, VR environments to change how we think and feel. There are those who fear the negative implications of these hyper-real environments and worry they will replace the physical world. Davis sees the virtual world not as a replacement for the physical world but as an enhancement. “That’s the thing about our work that I love most, is that we’re forcing people to look at the positive potential for virtual reality — maybe not even as positive, but normative — as opposed to the dystopic narrative most commonly represented.”
Davis believes there is great potential for VR to help revolutionize the health care, retail and fitness industries but more importantly she is hopeful it will transform our values as a society. VR social spaces can help remove cultural, racial, gender and economic barriers that prejudice our interactions in the real world. “When do we start to value somebody’s mind and heart? I think in the VR space you begin to place a value on their mind and their heart rather than physical beauty because those are the things that are driving your interaction with that person.”
Connection is difficult. With more distractions, demands on our time, and mediated communications like texting and social media, making time for intimacy and love can be challenging. Holidays such as Valentine’s Day can serve to reinforce this realization, further isolating singles and those who choose alternative lifestyles. There are some who feel technology is an obstacle to intimacy and love, but other experts believe virtual reality can actually help foster connecting in new and exciting ways.
“Absolutely. Virtual reality can help bring us closer together and foster love and intimacy,” said Dr. Holly Richmond, a Ph.D Sex Therapist and author of the soon to be published Next Sex: Mating, relating and masturbating in the new age of technology. Richmond sees VR and other emerging technologies as having immense potential to help break down the barriers to love and intimacy in the digital age.
According to Richmond there are several applications where VR can play a role in healthier relationships and closer connections. VR therapies are already being used successfully to treat disorders such as PTSD and common phobias, Richmond believes this treatment can extend to sexual health issues such as erectile dysfunction, low libido and performance anxiety. “VR therapy can help common disorders — pain disorders, low libido, and erectile dysfunction. By helping people understand arousal and taking the pathology out of ‘not doing it right,’ VR can provide positive solutions in a safe and comfortable environment.” Richmond is currently exploring using immersive VR environments to help treat these common issues among her patients.
She also believes there would be huge value in using VR to help teach anatomy and human sexuality in schools. Using a 3D model to explore female and male anatomy would enable students to better understand their own bodies and the bodies of potential partners. Immersive VR educational videos would also act as great tool to help explore human sexuality in a safe and nurturing environment.
Beyond therapy and education, Richmond also believes VR has the power to help normalize sexual expression and empower users to better understand and meet their own needs. In her practice, she outlines three elements that are vital for healthy, intimate connections. These “Three E’s” are Empathy, Empowerment, and Embodiment. VR’s immersive elements, such as having a first-person point of view (POV), enable the user to experience and feel these elements instead of just talking about them.
Above: Dr. Holly Richmond is currently working on using VR to help treat her patients
Image Credit: Katarina Kojic
“VR is great place to learn and practice. It gives users an experiential component. Better than just watching, we can feel our way into things. It also gives us choice — choosing your POV, for example — gives us more control and can be very empowering. VR also allows for a mind and body connection. We can actually feel it — it’s an integrated experience. Used in education, learning outcomes are dramatically improved when someone can experience something instead of just watching.”
The love-tech landscape
Above: Holly Richmond on the set of Badoink’s “Virtual Sexology” series.
Individuals and couples can now use a few immersive tools to help enhance intimacy. VR films, primarily focused in the adult entertainment sector, are beginning to take more of an educational approach. For example, Badoink’s “Virtual Sexology” series, which Richmond co-authors, is positioned as a sex therapy program. It primarily consists of 360 degree videos shot from the first-person perspective. The viewer can choose man or woman’s POV, and the scene immerses them as a participant. The voice-over includes tactics like sensate focus and applied behavior applications such as positive reinforcement. While this type of immersion may be a step above traditional 2D video, it still doesn’t enable the viewer to feel what’s happening on film.
Enter Kiiroo, a growing tech company based in Amsterdam. It’s developing a solution to this problem.
Kiiroo is the leading producer of remote-controlled smart teledildonics for couples. Since 2013, this company has used technology to help couples feel more connected and intimate when they’re not together — especially when they are hundreds if miles apart. Through the use of the Kiiroo app and the devices, both male and female, couples can have an interactive experience, controlling each other’s pleasure, despite being a continent away. Couples can see each other in real-time via a 2D webcam or other similar device (like a smartphone), but according to Kiiroo’s Maurice Op de Beek, couples can now use a 360 degree camera and enjoy the VR version. “VR is so real and immersive, but historically, you couldn’t feel it. You needed touch. We have created the illusion of touch and are solving this problem.”
Above: Kiroo’s Fleshlight Launch and Onyx 2
Op de Beek is extremely optimistic about the potential of creating more and more realistic experiences with the help of VR. When asked if we would see hyper-real sexual experiences in our lifetime, his immediate response was “Definitely! We already have this with our Launch device. It’s very real and the developments are going so fast we are about 10-20 year out from hyper-real simulated sexual experiences.” Kiiroo’s most immersive product, the Fleshlight Launch, enables male stimulation synchronized with a VR film experience. The device exactly mimics the actions onscreen, reeling the viewer into the action and providing for a new level of embodiment. The market has about 1,500 VR-enabled films that are synced to devices, with more in production.
Above: Kiiroo Chief Technology Officer Maurice Op de Beek, believes we will experience hyper-real immersive encounters in our lifetime.
Kiiroo is also enabling devices for women to sync with VR films, partnering with We-Vibe and OhMiBod. Op de Beek has approached many of the leading device manufacturers and proposed adding Kiiroo’s smart technology to their products. Eventually there will be hundreds of thousands of these smart devices all over the globe, allowing for couples and singles to remotely connect like never before.
Richmond feels leveraging the immersion of VR can be a valuable tool for these devices: “The newest VR-enabled, remote control devices are some of the best that I’ve seen. They force couples to communicate, taking some of the guess work out of meeting each other’s needs. It has facilitated conversations about what people like and what they don’t like. Sex tech can help women be empowered and connect with their own bodies and then share this with a partner.”
Given the reality of achieving hyper-real sexual experiences in our lifetime, some fear that these experiences will be addicting and act as a replacement for real, human interactions. Headlines such as this one from a recent ABC post, “Virtual reality addiction threat prompts cautious approach as VR nears ‘smartphone-like’ take-off,” work to propagate these concerns. Richmond doesn’t believe VR will increase addiction and argues that technology is only working to enhance human connection, not replace it.
“The idea of addiction — I just don’t buy it. There’s no such thing as sex or Internet addiction. There will always be people who abuse technology. The VR component won’t make it that much more addictive. From print magazines like Playboy, to online adult entertainment, and now VR and teledildonics — the technology will keep progressing. We, as human beings, need to learn how to keep up with it.”
The future is bright
Both Op de Beek and Richmond are extremely optimistic about what the future holds for VR and making a love connection. As technology improves, so will the ways we leverage this technology to learn more about ourselves and our partners. VR is creating new communication channels, new ways to feel and empathize with one another and ultimately allow for a full range of intimate self-expression. Richmond sums it up: “My mission in life is to stop the pathologization of any kind of sexual expression that isn’t within the ‘normal’ box. And thankfully, that box is opening — we’ve got pansexual, demi-sexual, bisexual, and now digisexual.
“We’ve still got this inherent desire, especially in the US, to pathologize difference. Immersive technology, like VR, can enable us to embrace, even celebrate, these differences, and allow us to safely explore and experience ourselves in new ways. This is what I see as the biggest potential for VR.”
User generated content in Second Life houses MANY representations of big brands, such as Converse, created by brand advocates.
In the final chapters of his book, Convergence Culture, Jenkins (2006) outlines the characteristics of a paradigm shift to a ‘participatory culture’. He cites many examples of the tensions that are arising between the old mass media and the new media revolution. The digital tools that have allowed the average consumer to find a voice online and create user-generated content are also being exploited by larger brands, attempting to mimic this grassroots phenomenon.
As I read Jenkins (2006) observations, I was struck by what may have been an unintentional experiment testing this new paradigm. Many of the issues raised in the text, reminded me of events that had transpired years before in a virtual world called Second Life. SL, as it’s referred to by insiders, was started in 2003 and is COMPLETELY crafted from user-generated content. The platform gained popularity briefly but never quite made its way onto the list of mainstream social networking platforms.
SL had several obstacles keeping it from going mainstream, ranging from technical issues and a steep learning curve to adult and x-rated content. The latter, coupled with the old media’s focus on what they deemed as unacceptable content worked to marginalize the entire SL community. Jenkin’s (2006) sums it up this way, “Old media still defines which forms of cultural expression are mainstream through its ability to amplify the impact of some user-generated content while labeling other submissions out of bounds.” Articles like the recent post, Second Life: what went wrong?, focused on the platforms adult content getting into the hands of children. The author calls SL ‘a disturbing hive of graphic sexual content, extreme rape fantasies, and vendors selling webcam sex…children were inhabiting some of the most hardcore locations’. This may be true but children are accessing porn on the Internet everyday and I don’t hear a call for turning ‘off’ the Internet. Just like the web, SL houses a myriad of communities OTHER than those that are adult-themed.
My friend and old SL resident, Draxtor Despres, has made it his mission to tell the stories that mainstream media has chosen to overlook. An amazing example of user-generated content, his YouTube channel houses dozens of expertly crafted videos telling a very different SL story. There’s the video about an elderly women with Parkinson’s who is finding renewed vigor thanks to her time in SL. The video outlines how mirroring what her avatar does on the screen actually strengthens her neural pathways in real life and allows her better mobility.
Another story outlines the flourishing fashion industry in SL and explores the relationship between avatar and real-life.
Better Way to Learn?
Back in its heyday, SL was seen as a promising alternative for virtual learning. Many institutions created SL islands and universities. Educators worked to provide online students with a more engaging environment. Today many of the university campuses have disappeared and online learning has moved in a different direction.
Educators my have overlooked the fact that learning happens in a very different way in SL. Instead of learning in virtual classrooms, SL residents learn by interacting with the virtual environment. Jenkin’s (2006) references “scaffolding” as a means to help students try out new skills. He describes it this way, “In the classroom scaffolding is provided by the teacher. In a participatory culture, the entire community takes on some responsibility for helping newbies find their way.” This is VERY much a part of SL culture. The older, more experienced SL residents take it as their duty to help ‘newbs’ maneuver the steep-learning curve that is required to truly enjoy SL. The learning happens by attempting to navigate and participate in the community.
Brands in SL?
As SL was becoming more popular and recruiting more die-hard users, brands decided they wanted to market to this extremely desirable demographic. Several corporations, including IBM, coca-cola and KLM, built an in-world presence. In very much the same way consumers have rejected ‘astroturf’ or FAKE grassroots media, SL residents rejected big brands attempting to hijack their virtual community. Corporations attempted to use this new media platform to sing the same old song – buy our products. They built virtual cars, virtual clothes, virtual jewelry, virtual beverages and expected residents to assume some sort of brand affinity. Instead of speaking the language of the residents and giving them the power to assume an active role in their brands, companies attempted to control the message. This was a HUGE failure. IBM, who once held global company meetings in SL has left all but left the space. Companies have pulled the plug on SL but instead of gaining some self-awareness of how they could have better engaged this community, they simply deemed all of SL a huge waste of time.
The branding that survives in SL today are the items that have been built organically by SL residents and NOT corporations. You can still find Converse sneakers and virtual Starbucks coffee shops. Are these brands aware that their brand has been co-opted by virtual avatars? Probably not. Years ago these brands may have tried to shut down this type of content. What would they do today?
Looking at these virtual content creators through the lens of today’s marketers, we see a group of brand advocates replicating items they love in SL. These are the consumers of marketers dreams, referred to as the ‘loyals’ in Jenkins (2006) writings. Marketing luminaries, such as AdAge editor, Scott Donaton, realized years ago that attempting to control the narrative would have negative effects on the brand. Second Life has proven this to be true.
Technology has DISRUPTED education, to use a popular phrase from the valley. Most traditional institutions are clinging to their linen cardstock degree certificates fearful that a shift to online learning will render them worthless. The paradigm shift underway due to the marriage between technology and education has many innovative thinkers questioning the need for schools at all. Some are arguing that perhaps computers can do a better job of teaching than actual teachers. I tend to agree with a quote from the famous science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke: “A teacher that can be replaced by a machine should be.”
Below I outline three perspectives on the future of education and how the role of ‘teacher’ is either shifting or disappearing all together. (more…)
In his recent article on Forbes.com, branding guru, Marty Neumeier lays out how Harvard is attempting to handle the threat of online disruption. He plainly asks “what’s keeping new distance-learning companies such as Coursera and edX from repositioning Harvard as an overpriced dinosaur (Neumeier, M., 2014)?” This is a question that needs to be asked by EVERY overpriced college program in the country.
Neumeier highlights two opposing strategies to solve this problem and then defines a third option that would help to promote true innovation and not be limited by the past. Harvard appears to be moving forward with a program called HBX, an online course to prepare students to speak ‘the language of business’. The guiding principles formulated by the dean include the following items:
HBX should be economically self-sustaining
It should not substitute for the MBA program
It should replicate the school’s discussion-based learning model (more…)
What is engagement? Despite the fact that I work with clients everyday to track ENGAGEMENT metrics, I haven’t taken the time to reflect on a working definition. There appears to be two distinct camps approaching this question; 1) psychologists and 2) marketing professionals and academics. As a disclaimer, I have worked for almost a decade as a digital marketing strategist and therefore the latter approach to defining engagement is more familiar to me.
These dual approaches are outlined by Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G. in their work entitled ‘The Concept of Engagement’. Psychologists have defined engagement as a ‘sort of ongoing emotional, cognitive and behavioral activation state in individuals’, whereas advertising professionals ‘see it as the turning on of a prospect to a brand idea enhanced by the surrounding context’ (Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G., 2010, p. 4). Their work goes further to uncover contradictory definitions for the term ‘engagement’ and confusion around its actual meaning (Gambetti, R. and Graffigna, G., 2010).
A strong voice on the business side, Brian Solis, had this to say on the subject of defining engagement (Solis, B. 2011):
Engagement is defined as the interaction between a consumer or stakeholder and an organization. It is measured – here’s the important part – as the take-away value, sentiment and actions that follow the exchange. Without definition, where will they go, what will they feel, what will they do or say?(more…)