Imagined communities have the ability to bring people closer together, and develop deep meaningful connections

What’s the first thing that comes to mind at the mention of a ‘community’?




For many, community is something that feels close to home and tactile; more often than not, specific names and faces come to mind when people think of their own communities.

But when it’s not possible to connect with people in person, is there any way to feel a sense of belonging and community?

Virtual reality (VR) technology has come a long way since its initial inception in 1968. Since then, VR has become more commonplace, especially in the medical field. Although VR is in its infancy compared to technology like smartphones and computers, that doesn’t mean that it’s not creating a positive wave of change.

VR technology is potentially opening a door to a world of connection and healing that other forms of medicine have not been able to replicate. Imagine a world where it’s possible to visit anywhere and experience any situation from the comfort of your home.

Albert “Skip” Rizzo, Director of Medical Virtual Reality at the Institute for Creative Technologies and Research Professor at the Department of Psychiatry and School of Gerontology at USC, believes that VR technologies hold the potential to aid people with debilitating mental illnesses explore their trauma in a safe, controlled environment.

VR has the ability to “put people in simulations that they would never go to, and deal with the uncomfortableness. Over time it gets a lot easier and more comfortable,” Rizzo said. According to Rizzo, VR allows patients with PTSD to build simulations of places where people were traumatized, from the safety of a clinician’s office. “We can develop virtual reality simulations [so] that we can deliver simulations in VR that can help teach or treat [symptoms].”

This opens up worlds of potential for a myriad of illnesses and physical limitations. According to Rizzo, this evidence-based practice also aids in reducing painful medical treatments for burn victims or provides a sense of hope for patients who have difficulty grappling with other physical ailments. Existing as an avatar in a virtual world where disease, illness, and other impediments are unable to affect a person can be a temporary reprieve from the pain.

But VR isn’t just for games.

Virtual technology has the potential to connect groups of people together from different parts of the world. A study conducted by University of San Francisco researchers found that 43 percent of elderly patients felt lonely or socially isolated. This can lead to unexpected problems with physical health, such as an increased likelihood of developing dementia and increased rates of mortality.

For elderly patients, VR could function as a new way to share experiences with loved ones, and combat loneliness.

Rizzo recalled a memory of himself and his mother viewing an old memory of hers through a VR headset. Even though they couldn’t physically travel back in time, they were able to explore space and talk about her memories in the area from the convenience of a headset.

“I can dial into her headset world through my laptop,” he said. “You can have a shared experience.”

This kind of technology could also go a long way in bringing imagined communities (i.e. people with shared experiences who have never met in real life) together.

It’s not the first time technology has been able to do this. In Rebeca Z. Shafir’s book, The Zen of Listening: Mindful Communication in the Age of Distraction, Shafir talks about how the advent of radio brought together a sense of joined national identity.

“For it wasn’t just that this new technology made imagined communities more tangible because people now listened to a common voice and a shared event at truly the exact moment as others around the region, or the country,” Shafir wrote. “Listeners themselves insisted that this technology enhance their ability to imagine their fellow citizens, as well as their ability to be transported to “national” events and to other parts of the country.”

As we continue to focus our efforts and attention on Black lives and stories this Black history month, it’s interesting to consider how this new tech can bring together members of the Black community both in the United States and across the international diaspora.

While it’s true that there is no singular way to “be Black”, communities are often times defined by a widely-shared set of cultural values and beliefs.

“Part of this shared cultural experience — family connections, values, expression through spirituality or music, reliance on community and religious networks — is enriching and can be great sources of strength and support,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) wrote on their official website. “However, another part of this shared experience is facing racism, discrimination and inequity that can significantly affect a person’s mental health. Being treated or perceived as “less than” because of the color of your skin can be stressful and even traumatizing.”

VR offers a new way for Black people to connect with one another. Unlike traditional social media or even traditional interactive video games, which are largely text-based, VR gives users an opportunity to navigate a digital world of their choosing.

“Social media is not a resource for telepresence,” Maryalice Jordan-Marsh, Senior Scholar at Creative Media and Behavioral Health Center in the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said. “It’s all verbal and text-verbal. Virtual reality is intended to immerse you and create a sense you are actually there and present.”

Imagine being able to speak with others about a shared experience in a virtual world. Two people could be on opposite sides of the country but could share a virtual space together in real time. Not only that, but it’s worth mentioning that group therapy sessions for people with shared experiences is yet another concept that has not been fully explored, but could potentially bring together members of the same community from different parts of the world.

Although, the technology isn’t quite at that stage yet. “VR, as it’s easily available, has not been developed for a group experience,” Jordan-Marsh said. “It’s possible, but very few people are using it to build community.”

Speaking of accessibility; it’s hard to believe that this kind of tech could be offered to the general public. Just how likely is it that the average person can get their hands on a headset?

There’s no simple answer, but as companies like Meta (formerly known as Facebook) and Google begin producing readily-available technology and potentially subsidizing the necessary equipment, it’s very likely the cost will continue to decrease.

“Technology has advanced so much that they’re $300,” Rizzo said. “That’s the third of a good cell phone. Certainly, the digital divide has always existed [but] I think the cost of these kinds of things will become cheaper and cheaper.”

Rizzo’s right: a quick Google search will reveal that the prices of headsets vary greatly between brands and manufacturers. A Google Cardboard VR Headset can be as little as $9.99 ($5.99 when on sale), while an Oculus can be as expensive as $300.

Since the prices for headsets vary, it seems as though the more difficult hurdle to conquer is finding a system that helps teach people how to utilize the technology.

“If we’re going to build community, the young people need to push for interoperability, so your parents, siblings, and grandchildren can all play together,” Jordan-Marsh said. Similar to how sometimes phones like iPhone and Android can be incompatible, Jordan-Marsh also raised an important question: “Can we play together if we’re using different [brands of VR technology]?”

It seems as though the possibilities for VR technology are endless. And while there certainly remains a lot to discover about this new way of connecting, the potential of this kind of tech is certainly worth exploring.

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