Social Media in a Networked Reality: How Virtual Spaces May Spark a Revolution

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By Mark Stone, Contributor

Picture this: Instead of swiping through cute animal videos, you’re in a room with your closest friends, surrounded by adorable cats and dogs that are almost real enough to pet.

“We need to move on to the next evolution,” says Tyler Gates, managing principal at Brightline Interactive and president of the D.C. Chapter of the Global Association for VR and AR, “by taking our digital two-dimensional presence and making it visually spatial, three-dimensional, and fully immersive.”

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According to Gates, these fully immersive experiences may soon be delivered to users through their social media apps using an upcoming web platform you may not have heard of: WebXR. Put forth by the World Wide Web Consortium, this new web protocol will be a major breakthrough for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies, he explains. WebXR—the “X” in “XR” can mean VR, AR, or any other future “reality”—will allow users to seamlessly share immersive experiences over the web.

Powerful Protocol

Today, we experience social media—and the internet at large—as a system of two-dimensional web pages. According to Gates, current web protocols don’t allow for the ease of use required to access immersive content over the current web standard. WebXR, he says, will enable developers to create AR or VR content and put it out on the web, with users experiencing a seamless transition from 2D to 3D, VR, or augmented content.

Essentially, WebXR is a new standard by which immersive content can be delivered to any mobile device, headset or hardware, regardless of operating system or manufacturer.

“When it launches, we’ll be able to create immersive content and not have to create native applications, the barrier to content distribution,” Gates says.

Like HTML—the code that powers websites—WebXR communicates between devices and browsers, providing data about the device’s capabilities. This way, developers and designers are able to use this information and adjust the website to any device. “WebXR is a piece of external technology that has to do with how the web is structured, yet doesn’t directly involve immersive technology,” Gates says. “It will also become a content distribution mechanism, in which users won’t be required to go through the additional step of downloading an app.”

Essentially, WebXR is a new standard by which immersive content can be delivered to any mobile device, headset or hardware, regardless of operating system or manufacturer. That means you’ll be able to see augmented content on any phone using only your browser.

Social Media Revolution?

Despite the hype, VR is still a relatively foreign concept for many, let alone the notion of social media in VR or AR. In Gates’s opinion, the technology itself is not to blame.

“It’s really about the rails that it’s built on, the distribution mechanism, and the data connection,” he says. “To experience the richness of these content environments, Wi-Fi is required, which is a major limitation.”

“With VR, you can step into these spaces. Inside that space, you’re present with other people from around the world who wish to have the same experience.”

—Tyler Gates, managing principal, Brightline Interactive and president, D.C. Chapter of the Global Association for VR and AR

But with 5G around the corner, high-speed, low-latency connections everywhere may move the virtual needle. Gates believes that, with 5G and WebXR, we’re nearing what could be the tipping point for widespread adoption of immersive technologies.

For social media, the implications are tremendous.

Gates predicts that, as VR becomes more mainstream, social media users will get used to “meeting” in VR spaces in which everyone is represented by an avatar and will create their own persona.

“With VR, you can step into these spaces. Inside that space, you’re present with other people from around the world who wish to have the same experience.”

Social media is about sharing experiences and memories. With AR and VR added to the mix, those memories become much more “real,” as immersive technologies have the power to trick the brain into thinking what it sees is actually happening. For a company striving to inspire a specific feeling with a product or service, the possibilities are infinite.

What This Means for Brands

For brands planning on incorporating immersive technology into their social media strategies, exploring the offerings already available in VR platforms like Oculus Home, Big Screen, and RecRoom may be a smart start.

Brands like Oreo, for instance, are using VR to engage with customers. By creating a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory-type VR environment in which customers are transported to a 360-degree world of Oreos, Nabisco intensified its connection to consumers. With an additional social media-sharing element, potential engagement multiplied to nearly 4 million views in a matter of months.

Gates suggests that companies must decide how their message will be represented in an environment that is 360 degrees. “It’s not just a matter of copying and pasting your two-dimensional web work into the immersive world,” he says. “You have to build new brand standards, forge new pathways for communication, and create new interactions. If you simply copy and paste your existing set of interaction and communication tools into VR, you’re wasting time and money, and severely limiting your own capacity to communicate.”

He warns that any organization or institution procrastinating will find itself years behind those already diligently transforming their two-dimensional digital content into three-dimensional immersive spaces.

The Communication Future

Immersive technology should matter to anyone trying to reach a broad audience in a unique and memorable way. Research from the University of Maryland suggests that through VR we not only retain more information but can better apply what we’ve learned. In the study, 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR compared to the traditional, two-dimensional desktop experience.

“You can deliver entire cultural context to people regardless of their physical position, financial disposition, or access to the information. The true power of immersive content and social networks is to bring people together to create awareness,” says Gates. “If you can show someone the context for something visually and allow them to experience it with an entire interactive community, you can potentially create something that can change the world.”