Over the holidays, my cousin showed me her headset and some of the VR landscapes she creates. AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) are worlds I know *virtually nothing about (pun intended), but it got me thinking about all the ways that VR could intersect with the community. I thought there must be people smarter than me already considering this, so I found and brought together some of the brightest community + VR minds to have a discussion. This resource is the collaborative result of our conversations, experiences, and insights.
Meet our experts:
Full bios can be found below.
Molli - Building community in the metaverse is a topic a former coworker and I tackled during the 2022 CMX Summit. I most recently headed up Community for Meta’s Horizon Worlds and for the last 2 years, had a front seat on the ever-evolving Metaverse landscape.
Ilker - I came across VR/AR startups during my time as a startup mentor in the mid-2010s - Teleporter is a standout example. I noticed the immense impact that community building can bring have on this field during my time leading developer communities at Google. My experience with Google Maps, VR, and Community came to a fascinating intersection with the runaway success of Pokemon Go - built by Niantic and spearheaded by John Hanke and other execs I know well from the Maps era.
Jeffrey - I was introduced to the world of VR around 2019 while working on the community management team for Meta’s Quest brand. During this time, some of the things I saw work well included the brand’s VR for Good initiative which promotes immersive storytelling with an emphasis on social impact in the areas of mental health and racial/social justice. I’ve seen community members rave over VR bringing friends and loved ones together from different parts of the world for watch parties using their headsets and gamers who’ve leveraged fitness experiences to get in shape and help them embrace healthier lifestyles.
Selva - With over 20 years of experience in the community sector, I am intrigued by the potential of VR to enhance community connections. Specifically, I am eager to explore how VR can bridge gaps in areas such as children's education, sports, and climate change. Currently, I hold the position of Social and Community Support Manager at MYOB, and am also a partner at Community Simplified.
What is AR/VR?
Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are a digital bridge into a physical world. AR is an interactive experience that combines the real world and computer-generated content, while in VR the user’s perception of reality is completely based on virtual information.
These are immersive digital experiences usually facilitated through a headset. While a headset certainly creates a high-quality immersive experience, later in this article we’ll talk about ways to get started in VR/AR even if you don’t have one.
But why tell you when we can show you?
While most people consider VR/AR to be exclusive to the gaming community, these technologies are rapidly advancing into other sectors and we believe it’s not only important but vital to understand a community-led approach to this technology.
How could we use VR/AR in our everyday lives?
Almost any entertainment, learning, or collaborative environment is likely to be transformed by VR/AR over the next decade. Not only that, but VR/AR stand to empower people in rural areas who traditionally lack access to specialized resources, activities, or performances.
Learning: Selva shared that a defining moment for him occurred when he had the opportunity to witness a virtual replica of the PSLV rocket launch, as executed by the Indian Space Research Organisation. The launch was simulated from a coffee table, allowing for real-time observation of the various stages of separation. The concept of being able to perceive and experience something that would otherwise be unattainable was truly astounding.
Entertainment: Immersive experiences are now poised to form a staple dimension of the entertainment industry. As an example, Formula 1 is partnering with a specialist company to provide immersive experiences to its fans in the Chinese market. The Los Angeles 2028 Olympics is poised to be the first ‘truly digital Olympic Games' thanks to a vision that was set out as far back as 2017.
And now Collaboration - made possible by precision
Like Web3, VR/AR is still in its infancy and for many years, it has been severely limited by the lack of technology. Ilker pointed out that one significant technological advancement changed the game for VR: the 5G network. As the 5G network expands, it removes the obstacle of latency (that is, the lag between when I say something and when you hear it on the other end of the connection). With faster 5G technology, we have precision. And that precision gives way to better collaboration. And where there is collaboration, we find community.
It might seem like a tiny detail in the technology, but the ability to precisely collaborate is why we believe that VR/AR stands to make enormous strides over the next decade. Now that 5G has eliminated the lag barrier, musicians from across the globe can gather virtually to create a musical masterpiece because there is no lag between the sounds generated by instruments.
Our group brainstormed just some of the possibilities for what collaborative VR/AR experiences would be like. Imagine an immersive world where you can be anywhere in the world and:
Have a consultation with your primary care doctor
Practice with your theater group
Learn how to fix a car engine alongside a classmate
Dissect a frog with other students
Scuba dive the great barrier reef with National Geographic
Attend prayers at your mosque
Shoot hoops with your pen pal in Norway
The potential is limitless for how this new precision will empower people to collaborate together virtually, both for entertainment purposes, learning purposes, and simply in order to connect and belong.
How VR/AR would benefit from a Community-led approach
It’s easy to see how you can use VR/AR to amuse, delight or even distract someone through entertainment. It’s also easy to see how you might use the technology for learning purposes. But how might we use this tool to create a stronger sense of connectedness and belonging?
Well, that’s where the world of community design and architecture comes in.
Consider our previous example of how Formula 1 is using VR/AR . Now, imagine a community-led approach where Formula 1 fans not only gather to witness races in VR/AR but where Chinese-speaking fans from around the world gather to connect with their racecar-loving friends in their own racing simulation.
During our discussion, Molli shared powerful examples of traditionally marginalized communities finding and creating belonging through virtual worlds. She talked about people with disabilities creating a world where they can walk, run, and play with others. Not everyone who has a disability is going to want a world where they live without that disability. But we could all use a world where we are surrounded by peers who can understand and support each other and even teach others to understand what it’s like to be us.
We believe true connection in virtual reality will be built by people who society has traditionally pushed to the fringes of connection and belonging. These folks are bravely designing private communities where, with imagination as their weapon, they can literally create a new lived experience.
In a loneliness epidemic, these small micro-communities have immense power to trailblaze connection and belonging in the VR/AR space that the world so desperately needs.
As we build VR/AR landscapes and experiences, empowering users to create the community they want to be a part of from within is the key to creating a solid network and enabling widespread VR/AR adoption.
How Communities can benefit from VR/AR
Ilker noted that it’s no secret that some of the strongest online communities have been formed through gaming environments. Outside of gaming, though, you’ll find online communities to be largely 2-dimensional. VR/AR stands to enhance all three pillars of a community experience: content, events, and conversation.
Content is the obvious one. VR/AR already enhances the experience for content being consumed (especially instructional content that needs real-life tangible models or examples to be seen).
Events are another element of community programming that could be dramatically improved with the more immersive experience that VR/AR provides. Imagine a three-dimensional space where you can see people going into breakout rooms to whiteboard new ideas.
And finally, conversation. One of the core limitations to Community at the moment is the limits we have around 1:1 connection. If two members in your community want to connect (and they are not geographically close to each other) their options are a phone call or video call. For many people, face-to-face conversation is an easy and natural connection (women in particular are socialized to relate better this way). There are, however, equally as many people who struggle with such a direct interaction and prefer activity to be a primary point of connection to build upon.
How much more intimidating is a first date where you sit across from the person with nothing but a teacup in between you compared to a date where you paint alongside each other, allowing the conversation to unfold between you? VR/AR allows for a common affinity or activity (painting, shooting hoops, or hiking for example), to exist as the starting point of connection, rather than diving into the deep end with a face-to-face call.
How can non-VR/AR communities get started?
Okay, even if VR/AR is awesome and has a ton of benefits, there’s still one major obstacle - not everyone has headsets. Furthermore, they are relatively expensive and headset adoption will not happen overnight. This seems like a major obstacle in helping communities adopt VR/AR. Either you have it and build the entire experience around it or you don’t, right?
Wrong. There are actually several ways that non-VR/AR communities can take steps even without a headset.
First, there is the cross-screen approach where platforms give the option to participate in the landscape through a phone, desktop, or headset (like Oculus). The experience on a screen is less
powerful and you will certainly feel the FOMO of not experiencing it the same way as those who have a headset, but it is accessible.
Ilker shared an incredibly simple but effective method for creating a VR/AR experience. For the cost of one cardboard box and some string, you can make your own AR/VR headset that holds your smartphone as the viewer. It’s so absurdly simple that it almost feels insulting. With this cunning technology, your community can have an immersive experience simply through a smartphone app. Community platforms that have mobile applications should consider now how they might start designing immersive experiences.
Working to provide AR/VR communities with the tools and resources they need to thrive is another way to get involved even without a headset. By listening, reading, and being in the VR-know, we can learn what these resources are and work to make them available and empower AR/VR communities.
If you are new to AR/VR but are interested in learning more, the best thing to do is find the AR/VR version of an interest you already have and start experimenting. I just googled “Yoga VR” and this came up. I typed in AR/VR Bible Study and this came up. Then AR/VR and painting and this came up.
What we need to take responsibility for sooner rather than later
Both Molli and Jeffrey were quick to highlight the need for proper regulation and procedures in AR/VR. Like the old chat rooms of the early 2000s, predators are quick to take advantage of the lack of structure and procedures around moderation in AR/VR and these spaces can be replete with harassment and bullying. Safety tools and policies require us all to take into account embodiments.
If AR/VR is going to make strides over the next decade, every stakeholder must assume responsibility to keep their members safe. From the AR/VR companies to the communities moderating interactions, down to each individual member, we must work together to create boundaries for these spaces so that they can become places of innovation and creation.
Brand Community Strategist at Ember Consulting
Bri Leever partners with purposeful brands to help them transition from being product-led to community-led by crafting a community framework to activate their top customers. When not in the community world you can find her on, in, or under the water near Hawaii island. 🌺
Founder & Community Strategist, ilkerakansel.com & talentled.co
Ilker is a Community Strategy Consultant with a focus on technology and innovation thanks to my experiences at Google and Cisco, and also a talent strategy and management as one of the co-founders of TalentLed, a consultancy that is focused on supporting organizations in setting up and utilizing talent communities to create business value.
Ex-meta, ex-ea and currently searching for new gig
My mission is to create safe spaces for people to connect, belong, and thrive. For me, this happens at the intersection between empathy and innovation. I am passionate about understanding people, what makes them bond, and I pick up on signals others may not. I have done this for multiple brands including Meta and EA.
Senior Community Manager
Jeffrey Roe is the Senior Community Manager at DecisionLink. At the forefront of Customer Value Management, DecisionLink empowers companies to define, quantify, and validate business outcomes at scale with their first-of-its-kind, enterprise-level platform, ValueCloud. Jeff also serves as Director of Community for the Tampa Bay, FL chapter of CMX Connect, a volunteer-led arm of CMX that brings community professionals together with over 60 global chapters
Social and Community Support Manager at MYOB, Partner at Community Simplified, ESG Consultant at Social Footprint
Selva is a highly experienced Community Builder with over 20 years of experience. He specializes in developing impact-driven strategies and implementing them to contribute to the growth of communities. He is a purpose-driven change-maker with a strong commitment to making the world a better place. My strengths include Kindness, Empathy, and Compassion, which I consider to be my superpowers.