LES SILLARS, HOST: From WORLD Radio, this is Doubletake. I’m Les Sillars.
JASON POLING: Encourage them, bless them. Help them to rethink, not be shaped by the world. Help them to be shaped by the thinking and the mind of Christ.
LES: Jason Poling is pastor of Cornerstone Church of Yuba City, California.
JASON: Help us to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, who won the joy for all of us. In Jesus’ name we pray, and all God’s people said ... [chorus of Amens] ...
Some months ago I went to a Sunday afternoon service. They let me record it, but the sound is pretty terrible. Sorry about that.
To close, they served communion. Here’s Michael Uzdavines, known as Pastor Goose.
GOOSE: … and communion is something that we do as part of our walk with Jesus ...
About 20 people attended. It was an unusual group. A lot of them had tails.
Music: A Cunning Plan
There was an enormous orange cat. A raccoon in shorts and a red T-shirt. A Victorian-era footman. Another raccoon, this one silvery and feminine.
Goose: ... If you have admitted that you are a sinner in need of a savior ...
There were a couple of “anime girls.” Anime is a distinctive Japanese style of animation. There was a skinny green thing with a Teletubby face and wearing tighty-whiteys. A medieval knight. A lizard-person. A toy soldier. Some were at least 10 feet tall, and others looked about 18 inches high.
I made eye contact with some of them as we gathered in a circle at the front of the church. It had a white vaulted ceiling with a big cross up front.
A beagle was roaming the background. Keeping an eye on things. Sometimes talking quietly to attendees. I thought at first he was the most unthreatening guard dog I’d ever seen. But I soon realized, no, he’s really more of a shepherd. A sheep-beagle.
Most of us were holding a large goblet and a piece of wafer. We’d picked them up from a table inscribed with the words, “Do This in Remembrance of Me.”
JASON: All right. So, on the night that Jesus was betrayed ... he brought his disciples together for a meal.
Like a lot of evangelical churches, Cornerstone teaches that communion is symbolic. In their theology, the elements are not literally or spiritually Christ’s body and blood.
JASON: And he held up a piece of bread and he broke it, and said, this is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
We held the bread up to our mouths.
JASON: And after that, he held up a cup ...
And, likewise, we pretended to drink from the empty goblets. And then we dropped the cups and bread on the floor. They disappeared.
MUSIC: The Beginnings
Most of us were not actually in Yuba City. The service was in virtual reality. The “metaverse.” That’s the network of online virtual reality apps and worlds that’s being developed by technology companies all over the world.
I was on an app called VRChat. Many of us were using virtual reality goggles, and some were on computers. And, yeah, it was a little strange.
Today on Doubletake, the story of a small California church heading into the metaverse. For the sake of the Gospel. It’s a story about technology and perception and the nature of reality. It’s also about this young man with Cornerstone named Stewart Freeman. He’s the beagle.
Let me mention here that many of our listeners will have serious theological objections to the idea of taking communion in virtual reality. I get it. This is a two-part series, and we’ll get into some of those questions next episode.
I was there because I wanted to find out about this virtual reality thing that had been in the news. In October of 2021 Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg had rebranded his company as “Meta.”
MUSIC: Inquisitive Mind
ZUCKERBERG: Today, we’re going to talk about the Metaverse. I want to share what we imagine is possible ...
Zuckerberg made some stunning claims and predictions. Smartphones and online videos were just the beginning, he said.
ZUCKERBERG: The next platform and medium will be an even more immersive and embodied Internet where you're in the experience, not just looking at it. And we call this the metaverse and you're gonna be able to do almost anything you can imagine.
He said life—both our personal and work lives—will become this amazing blend of the physical world and virtual reality.
ZUCKERBERG: There will be new ways of interacting with devices that will be much more natural. Instead of time typing or tapping, you're gonna be able to gesture with your hands, say a few words, or even just make things happen by thinking about them.
We won’t be focused on our devices, he said. They’ll just be there. Shaping our reality. Making things happen. You might call them “experience machines.”
The vision isn’t original with Zuckerberg. The word “metaverse” first appeared in a 1992 novel titled Snow Crash. Its metaverse was intense and exotic. Best of all, anybody could be powerful. The hero was a nobody in real life, but in the metaverse he was the greatest swordsman alive.
Snow Crash anticipated much of what Zuckerberg promised in his announcement.
ZUCKERBERG: In the next five or 10 years, a lot of this is going to be mainstream, and a lot of us will be creating and inhabiting worlds. They're just as detailed and convincing as this one on a daily basis.
I’m not exactly an early adopter of technology. I recall thinking 25 years ago, well, you can order groceries from San Diego if you want—but why would you? I thought broadband internet was just a fad.
So when Zuckerberg’s metaverse hit the news I thought, I’m not making the same mistake. Zuckerberg thinks this is the future, and he controls one of the most powerful companies in the world. He even renamed Facebook to make the point.
ZUCKERBERG: But now we have a new Northstar to help bring the metaverse to life. From now on, we're going to be Metaverse first, not Facebook first.
He’s betting tens of billions of dollars this will happen, and he’s not alone. Microsoft, Apple, and thousands of smaller companies are all working on similar visions of the future. Meta commissioned a recent study predicting that by 2035 the metaverse will generate 2.4% of the U.S. economy.
For the last several months the big story in tech has been generative artificial intelligence. You know. ChatGPT and the like. Virtual reality, or “VR,” has fallen out of the news lately, but the idea is very much alive and well.
ZUCKERBERG: I am dedicating our energy to this more than any other company in the world. And if this is the future that you want to see, then I hope that you will join us because the future is going to be beyond anything we can imagine.
And if it does become as big as Zuckerberg thinks, it’s also going to shape the capital-C Church. So I started poking around. And I found Cornerstone.
Stewart Freeman–he’s the beagle–grew up and still lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He’s 27, with brown hair and a polite demeanor. His family attended a Southern Baptist church but he wasn’t into it.
STEWART: My mom was a Sunday school teacher, ... I always slept during the services. Sometimes I'd go in the back where the choir was when they'd come out to sing and I’d eat their doughnuts because they had doughnuts back there. And then I’d slip into the service and go to sleep.
When he graduated from high school he went off to the University of North Carolina Greensboro to study music. He plays the tuba.
STEWART: So the goal was to join a symphony, but around junior year, so I realized that I'd really need to get a doctorate to be able to even audition for the spots that I'd want. And I didn't want to do that.
In his senior year he left college to help his dad’s business. Soon after that he founded and still runs the first pick-up-and-delivery laundry service in Winston-Salem.
LES: How’s it going?
STEWART: Good. It’s going good.
But about four years ago he broke off a six-year-relationship with a girlfriend. It was pretty traumatic. Stewart had always been a heavy video gamer, and after the breakup he decided to try out virtual reality. The reason?
STEWART: To be honest with you, Les, I wasn't a Christian at the time. I went in to try and pick up chicks.
LES: And how did that go?
STEWART: It actually went really well. I ended up having a lot of relationships in VRChat, and almost got on a plane to go and see some of them.
These days lots of romantic relationships begin online. But VR is different. The techies building the metaverse are obsessed with a concept called “social presence.” Again, here’s Zuckerberg.
ZUCKERBERG: First, the feeling of presence. This is the defining quality of the metaverse. You're going to really feel like you're there with other people.
This feeling of social presence is partly why intense personal relationships often develop much faster in VR than in a chat room or video call. Social presence is part of what brought Stewart into VR so completely. And it’s why, when I first stumbled into VR last fall, I found VR much more immersive, and more potent, than I had imagined.
MUSIC: Carefully Curious
I bought a headset last fall. An Occulus Quest 2. Facebook’s latest mass-market model. I picked it up on Facebook marketplace for $325. Still in the box. I took it home and opened it up.
I found a bulky set of goggles that you strap to your head. Bright white. Two hand controllers. I put it on, pressed power, and stood there in my living room. At first I saw only a really grainy black and white version of my living room. The goggles have a wide-angle camera that show you your surroundings.
Then it went dark. A control screen appeared, like a window on your laptop … only it seemed to be floating in the air in front of me. I scrolled through it to find
LES: No, where did I find that?
the orientation app.
LES: OK. I just hit the “First Steps” app. Now my boundary is showing up around me. Ooo ...
I felt like I was floating in space. The very air was indigo. Then beams of light formed into purple and blue trees and plants and mountains and streams. Then fish and whales appeared. Then a city. It was a creation story.
LES: I can hear birds, now there’s stars zipping through.
If you listen closely, you can hear my voice in the background trying to describe what was going on around me..
The Quest headset lets you record everything you see, do, hear, and say. So I always turned on the recorder whenever I went into the metaverse.
APP VOICE: Welcome to Occulus. After this tutorial, you’ll be ready to explore.
It started by walking me through the buttons on the hand controllers. When I looked down, the system showed me their position relative to my hands. Then suddenly, the controllers became hands.
APP VOICE: Now let’s see what your virtual hands can do.
LES: Oh, cool!
APP VOICE: … make a fist,
I could move my fingers with the buttons. A desk appeared in front of me with virtual objects on it. You could pick them up. Drop them. Toss them.
APP VOICE: Release the grip button to drop it. Your virtual hands can do just about anything. Go ahead. Play with some of these items.
For the next 10 minutes I hit virtual ping pong balls, shot off virtual rockets, and fired virtual blasters at moving targets.
LES: Squeeze and hold trigger. [sound of firing]
It was impressive. Thrown objects would arc downwards like in real life. Balls bounced to successively lower heights.
And then studio walls rose up, and a bright hole in the floor opened. Up came a little robot character with long flexible arms and legs.
LES: It turned around and waves at me, so I wave back at him.
It put out its hand. A sign said, “Shake to dance.” And I was like—OK. I shook its hand. Then disco music started up. The sign above him said, “Move your hands!” So I moved my hands.
The walls were flashing yellow and blue and orange. Then a sign said, “Get Down!” So I got down. In my mind, I was the Disco King.
And then, from the kitchen, I heard this quiet snickering.
My wife was videoing me.
LES: I don’t know if he’s copying me or I’m copying him.
She sent it to our adult children. With the words, “Dad says he’s doing research.”
My daughter-in-law texted back. “Is it research into how to make a video go viral? Because it’s getting a lot of views since I posted it on TikTok.”
APP VOICE: You’ve got the basics down. Time to explore all that VR has to offer. Have fun!
Anyway. After the orientation my “home world” materialized in front of me. In Occulus, it’s a comfortably furnished platform built into one side of a rocky canyon.
LES: I think today for the first time, I’m going to do a chat room.
From the floating control panel, I picked an app called “AltspaceVR.” I created an account and logged in.
My goggles went dark. I was a little nervous. And then
LES: AltspaceVR, authenticating ...
I found myself in another kind of home space. I was atop a large hill in a cartoon world at night. Stars in the sky and a screen in front of me. It reminded me of the “in-between place” in C.S. Lewis’s Narnia story The Magician’s Nephew. The “Wood between the worlds.” Only instead of jumping into pools to get into Narnia or Charn or wherever, you point and click on a screen.
I picked the first avatar that came up. A young guy. An avatar is your character that other people see. Then I scrolled through the available worlds until I found one that looked mildly interesting.
LES: I’m going to enter Campfire. I don’t know what this is.
Campfire turned out to be a weird empty place. Next: Space Museum. Nobody there either. Aurora was also empty, but the Northern Light display over a cabin in snowy woods was beautiful. And sad.
I finally met someone in a world called Life as a Bug.
LUCY: Hello, Les.
Her name was Lucy. Her avatar, like mine, was just a torso with hands. A blonde woman in a red dress and hat. She seemed to float across the ground. She knew my name, and I know hers, because in VR your user name appears above your head.
Lucy said she lives in the UK and built this world. It was a green, sunny woods with oversize plants and this massive dragonfly overhead. Lucy was very kind, and full of helpful tips for a newbie.
LUCY: Well, the first thing I would do if I was you is change your avatar. You look like a 13-year-old.
Which was true. I made a mental note to get a new one. She showed me how she can add a tree to her world.
LUCY: Can you just step to one side, dear. Thank you.
LES: There’s the tree. It’s like being a creator.
LUCY: There’s four of them.
Lucy also taught me how to teleport in VR. You can “walk” by pushing one of the joysticks, but that’s very slow. You teleport by pointing your controller where you want to go and pressing a button.
LES: And I point at it, I point, just let me get the right button. That’s not it. Hang on. Oh, wow.
Suddenly I was on top of this huge red mushroom. My problem, as I went on, was that I could never remember which button to use to teleport. Each controller has five plus a joystick. So I’d just point and start pushing randomly until I was suddenly in a different spot.
LUCY: You’re jumping around like a rabbit.
I hung around with Lucy and a few of her friends for a half hour. One of them pretended to pick his avatar’s nose. I left.
I decided I needed a little more help finding my way around.
BARBARA CARNEIRO: Yes, my name is Barbara Carneiro. And I'm currently in South Carolina.
She’s a VR enthusiast. Her business, Word Revolution, helps churches with communication strategies. She also helps churches who want to get into VR. One evening last fall she took me to an app called Rec Room. I met up with Barbara and one of her VR friends. We went into a couple of different rooms, starting with a karaoke joint.
LES: Walking downstairs, OK. Code of Conduct? Yeah whatever. OK. Whoops
We entered a kind of lounge area with a few dozen other avatars. A purple stage was up front. I could see backstage a line of avatars waiting to sing. Avatars were constantly scooting around and even through us. Many moved so fast I couldn’t tell what they were.
The karaoke singers we heard were, to put it charitably, abysmal.
MALE VOICE: Hello everyone, I’m going to be singing a Drake song for you guys. So, here we go: Baby, I like your style ...
Others were abysmal and a bit vulgar. Rec Room is considered a family app.
We left after a few minutes and went to a paintball game.
APP VOICE: Ready to start.
APP VOICE: Game on!
LES: I, uh ...
GAME VOICE: Capture the flag!
LES: Well if I knew where the flag was ...
It was fun. We started hunting each other through an industrial setting. But I was constantly looking and moving around while never really getting my bearings. Forward. Back. Up. Down. Soon I started to feel a bit queasy. As I found out, many people get motion sickness in VR. Especially when they “walk” instead of teleport.
LES: Oh, you know what? I’ve been moving around a little bit ...
Your eyes are telling your mind that you’re moving, but your inner ear says you’re not.
LES: You know, my wife just asked me if I need a pail ...
I yanked off my headset and rushed to the bathroom.
And that was that for the evening.
We’ll just take a few minutes here to provide a brief history of virtual reality. For millennia storytellers, from Homer to Stephen Spielberg, have sent their characters into other worlds for adventures. But virtual reality means something a little more specific.
PROFESSOR LUDWIG: But listen—a movie that gives one sight and sound. Suppose now I add taste, smell, even touch, if your interest is taken by the story.
This is one of the first literary versions of VR. A 1935 short story called Pygmalion’s Spectacles. Professor Ludwig’s “special glasses” could display a special kind of movie.
PROFESSOR LUDWIG: Suppose I make it so that you are in the story, you speak to the shadows, and the shadows reply, and instead of being on a screen, the story is all about you, and you are in it ...
Virtual reality is the idea that technology does more than merely create the illusion that you are someplace else. In another world. It’s that you can interact with this illusion. Literature and movies can be powerful experiences, but they’re not interactive.
In VR you’re in the movie. You make choices and experience the results, even with other people. It’s been a staple of science fiction for nearly a century.
Scientists developed the first virtual reality headset in 1961. It was pretty clunky but VR technology improved gradually over the next decades. Applications included flight simulators and military training. In the 1990s some video game companies tried to develop mass market headsets, like the Nintendo Virtual Boy.
NINTENDO AD: He had the moves. The punches. The fire …
But they never caught on.
The idea of virtual reality hit the big time in 1999 with the blockbuster movie The Matrix. This is the traitor, Cypher. His physical body’s in a suspension tank but he’s willing to live in the Matrix.
CYPHER: You know, I know this steak doesn’t exist. I know that when I put it in my mouth the Matrix is telling my brain that it is juicy and delicious. After nine years, you know what I realize? Ignorance is bliss.
The Matrix was a dystopia. But Steven Spielberg’s 2018 movie Ready Player One portrays the metaverse, called The Oasis, as a glorious place.
PARZIVAL: People come to the Oasis for all the things they can do. But they stay for all the things they can be. Tall. Beautiful. Scary. A different sex. A different species. Live action. Cartoon. It’s all your call. Yeah. That’s me. At least, that’s my avatar. Until I feel like changing.
The story matches in remarkable detail Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s vision for the metaverse. VR technology hasn’t yet caught up to The Oasis. But you can go to a lot of different places in VR. Most of the traffic is gaming or world creation sites like Roblox or Minecraft. A popular game like this might have millions of users worldwide. Also, travel apps put you in a 3D video environment anywhere in the world, from the pyramids to the Great Wall of China. You can go to sports events and concerts. In this U2 performance, it seems like you’re sitting on a stage surrounded by the band.
BONO: You’ve got a face not spoiled by beauty / I’ve got some scars from where I’ve been ...
You can also exercise, dance, watch really big screen movies, or meditate. Play mini-golf. Take classes. But the core of VR is the ability to meet and interact with other people. It’s a social media technology. That, as we mentioned earlier, is what drew Stewart into VR.
When Stewart broke up with his girlfriend, as we mentioned, he jumped into an app called VRChat. Unlike me, he figured out how to use it pretty quickly.
You’d think that a guy on the rebound would be looking for a new relationship IRL—that's “In Real Life.” Not Stewart.
STEWART: That wasn't the goal going in. The going in was to work on my work on my game. And it ended up being more than that, because of the real raw relationships that happened in the space.
VRChat has lots of dating worlds. Stewart instead found karaoke.
STEWART: Well, so I was really into the karaoke scene.
It’s a pretty big thing in VR.
STEWART: I was in a lot of, of karaoke private groups and things, and, and through that, grew some relationships with some people. And, uh, some turned into a little more than that.
He’d get home after work and open up VRChat. Then go to one of several favorite karaoke bars in the app.
YOUTUBE: [Karaoke voices]
This is a recording of a karaoke bar someone posted on YouTube. A bunch of avatars are singing along to a song by Adele called “Someone Like You.” There are several anime girls and other characters of wildly varying sizes. They move around platforms overlooking a pub with wood beams and stone floors. The lyrics are on a screen at the front.
Yes, they are struggling to sing in sync. That’s because of latency. Each time data passes from a user’s headset to game server to another user and back, there’s a slight delay. Add them all up, and doing things together simultaneously, like singing, is pretty much impossible.
If just one person is singing at a time, it’s less of an issue. But Stewart learned to love it. He started to organize get-togethers.
STEWART: We had events that were going on, just about every night. So sometimes I'd jump in there with the friends that I met in karaoke in the karaoke groups, and singing from when I get home from work until four o'clock in the morning.
Stewart told me that the community in VRChat is among the most lewd in all virtual reality. The club scene is pretty intense. This is partly because of the avatars you can buy. People can be anything. Wear—or not wear—anything.
For Stewart, VRChat became home.
STEWART: It's where I spent all my time. That's where I grew relationships. It’s where I've laughed with people, cried with people. It, it's where I could be my real self.
The only places I went in VRChat were Cornerstone Church and a world called The Black Cat. Stewart took me once, just to give me an idea of the atmosphere.
LES: OK, Stewart, did I hear you? There we go.
STEWART: How you doin’ Les?
I went first to Stewart’s VRChat home world. A platform floating under a starry sky with a hazy purple horizon. Stewart’s avatar appeared in front of me.
LES: There we go. Wow. You are one cute avatar, I’ve gotta say.
STEWART: Thank you. [laughter]
He was a beagle, as I’d mentioned. We went over to the mirror. I was a fox with a huge head. Dressed like a woodsman with an ax slung over my shoulder. Really short legs. Stewart opened up a portal to the Black Cat by wiggling his fingers.
I walked through and “spawned”—that’s the word for entering a world—into a lounge.
VOICES: I just had a funked voice. I can go from all the way up here to all the way down here in a few seconds.
Stewart came over and beckoned me to follow. We headed toward the back. It was dark, with wood-paneled walls and tan chairs all over. There was a bar, but nobody tending it. I could hear conversations happening all around.
We ended up in front of a blank screen with several other avatars clustered around it.
STEWART: You can point and click on HQ mirror at the top here.
LES: Just a sec, gotta get a little closer here. HQ mirror?
Suddenly I could see everybody and myself in the mirror. An enormous fluorescent green toad with blazing red eyes and black markings. An anime girl with elfin boots. A small hot dog with really skinny arms and legs. Another of the tighty-whitey Teletubbies. A Transformer-like robot. Stewart, as a beagle, came up to the robot’s knees.
Stewart and I started chatting with them.
VOICE: Oh. Somebody new to VRChat.
STEWART: Brand new. First time in.
LES: How ya’ doin’?
VOICES: Really? Hello.
Stewart told me this is one of the most popular worlds just to hang out. Some people come for 10 or 12 hours per day.
STEWART: Don’t scare him off too quick.
I won’t play more than snippets of the voices of those we met, or reveal personal details or user names. I didn’t remember to tell them I’m a reporter. I just wanted to chat for a bit.
One of the avatars was just a flat, static picture of a chubby young guy’s face in a sweat band. Staring at you really wide-eyed.
I asked Stewart if there are any rules around here. I wanted to respect etiquette.
VOICE: Bozo! Forgot his pancakes!
Stewart said no.
LES: Do you know what I’ve noticed? Is that everybody is always moving. Like …
Chubby Boy was running his avatar in circles right through me and Stewart. Apparently some people find this behavior very offensive. Triggering, even.
LES: I come to this place, and I stand in one place, and everybody is always moving around. It’s wild.
STEWART: ADHD is a requirement here.
Certainly the people Stewart and I met that night sounded like minors. High school, or maybe early twenties.
After a while we started talking to the Transformer. He showed me his usual avatar: a silver, sleek, very feminine dragon with black trim feathers and a long tail. He offered to take me someplace where I could upgrade my woodland fox.
VOICE: Would you like an avatar?
LES: You know, I think I’m gonna keep the one I got, for now.
Eventually the conversation became weird.
VOICE: We got human peoples … [laughter]
And then weirder. I’ll spare you the details.
STEWART: Oh man. You’re never going to want to come back to VRChat again. [laughter].
After a bit Stewart and I went over to a different part of the Black Cat, but my headset crashed so we called it a night.
MUSIC: The Long Way Home
The atmosphere at the Black Cat was pretty tame compared to what Stewart was heading into every night. Aside from the karaoke, the other thing that pulled Stewart into VR every night was the drinking. Alcohol abuse is a real problem for many in the VRChat community. Here’s a video about it from a YouTuber called Phia. Her channel is dedicated to VRChat culture.
PHIA: Alcoholism is a well-known problem in any part of everyday life, but what about VR in particular takes a socially anxious wallflower and turns them into a party-obsessed addict? This is a deep dive into the drinking problems of VRChat and the culture that encourages it.
Here’s Stewart again.
STEWART: Yeah, I mean, for instance, drinking worlds are pretty big in this space. You've got people that come home from work, and jump in drinking world and drink themselves until they pass out.
To be clear, they’re drinking real alcohol IRL while in virtual reality. It’s hard to drink anything while wearing a headset. But there’s a VRChat app for computers. It's not as immersive as a headset, but it works.
STEWART: This is a place where people go, and there are tons of games that are made that you can go play with your friends. Tons and tons of games.
Stewart was playing, and drinking, a lot. He said there’s a sense of community in their hopelessness.
STEWART: And for them, it's the whole space is is a last resort. Where they've, where they've really given up on the real world, and they go there to, to just talk with other people who are just as depressed.
Stewart found that the pull of life in VR can be very powerful. And part of that appeal was this sense of actually being with other people, even via an avatar. So we’ll take a quick look at avatars and how techies like Zuckerberg understand the idea of “social presence.” Here’s Mike Howard, a product manager with headset maker Occulus. Meta owns Occulus.
MIKE HOWARD: Hi everyone. And welcome to the session on maximizing social presence with avatars.
He and another manager gave a presentation in 2017 and posted it on Youtube. They explained how to design systems that enhance the illusion of being with people. VR technology has advanced a long way since this presentation, but I recognized everything he talked about.
Here’s a simplified version.
He said that when you play a video game on a computer screen there’s a layer of abstraction between your perception and how you control your avatar. To punch, you don’t drive your fist forward. You push a button.
But in VR that layer mostly disappears. The headsets have sensors that can detect and translate a surprising amount of your body motion. When you tilt your head back in real life, you look up in VR. I could tell when people slouched or straightened up. I knew when they were looking at me.
HOWARD: When in VR, your senses are immersed in a real time feedback loop.
And that, Howard said, is what creates this sense of immersion. That’s “presence.” You move your hand IRL and you can see your hand move in VR. This feeling is reinforced when you see your avatar in a mirror. It’s why people in VRChat often gather around mirrors to talk.
HOWARD: “Presence” is what causes you to be nervous when peering over the edge of a virtual cliff, feel claustrophobic in enclosed virtual spaces, or physically dodge out of the way of an oncoming virtual projectile.
But of course sensors in a headset and two hand controllers can’t pick up all the nuances of your movement. Even if they could, headsets now aren’t powerful enough to portray it realistically. The trick is to design avatars just realistic enough to create presence, that sense of immersion, but not too realistic. Our brains easily detect when what we’re seeing seems even a little bit off. That breaks the illusion.
It’s even more complicated when you’re interacting with other people’s avatars in VR.
HOWARD: “Social presence” refers to the extent to which you perceive other users’ virtual representations to be human. So, presence captures the sense of being there in virtual reality. Social presence is a sense of being there with others in social virtual reality.
Our brains have this amazing ability to fill in the gaps in our perception. That’s why even simple or cartoonish avatars work in VR. We understand another avatar’s hand gestures in a given context, for example, even if we don’t see any of his facial expressions.
Our brains are so good at filling in the gaps that VR has something called “phantom touch.” It’s experiencing a physical sensation when you watch another avatar “touch” your avatar. Here’s YouTuber Phia again:
PHIA: People can become to immersed in virtual reality that they feel things that aren’t even there. Sight alone is enough to invoke the feeling of touch on a player’s body, whether that’s the warm sensation of a hug or the pain of being shot …
Not everybody can feel phantom touch but it’s pretty common. Psychologists have a name for feeling physical sensations based only on misleading visual stimuli: “proprioceptive drift.”
It’s just another way social presence can seem so powerful. It’s why people maintain social norms in VR. You don’t stand too close to other avatars. You maintain eye contact or look away as appropriate. You don’t poke a finger through someone’s face. After being in VR a while, I found myself using a lot of hand gestures to make up for missing facial expressions.
HOWARD: The reason that social virtual reality can be so compelling is because it combines high degrees of presence and social presence, as the senses of being in a virtual environment and of being there with other people reinforce each other.
Howard said it’s quite possible to design avatars with mouths that move to match what they’re saying. But the whole face has to match. Imagine someone sounding very angry but not having furrowed eyebrows.
HOWARD: When we're talking to someone we take in the minutiae of movement in their face, and mouth movement without for example, corresponding eyebrow movement, it can be really disconcerting.
So in some VR worlds avatars have a basic mouth or no mouth at all. Empty speech bubbles appear above their heads when they speak. In VRChat, the usernames above the heads of avatars light up when they speak.
And people rely heavily on certain kinds of nonverbal communication, like head and hand gestures. Howard said that early experiments in VR used avatars with just blocks for heads and hands.
HOWARD: And yet people were still amazingly capable of seeing and understanding the nuance of another human's behavior.
People can often recognize close friends in VR, even in a different avatar, just by their body language.
HOWARD: Everything from the way we hold our hands to the tilt of our heads is this amazing giveaway as to who we are, and you know, people who are close with each other can recognize it.
Howard added that Occulus also wanted people to be able to personalize their avatars. To have the avatars represent something real about themselves.
And that brings up another feature of VR. Choosing avatars the opposite of your biological sex is very common in VR. My experience was limited, but I noticed many males choosing feminine avatars. Often with exaggerated physical characteristics.
I asked several people about this. Does a male using a female avatar imply some level of gender dysphoria? Trying to express a feminine identity? That choosing an avatar feels, on some level, like the ability to create your own reality?
Most of the people I asked downplayed that angle. It’s just something some people do, they said. It’s kind of a joke.
But not for this guy.
STRASZ: They are not just piloting an avatar that they like the look of. They are the avatar that they like the look of.
His Youtube channel name is Strasz. And his avatar is pretty feminine.
STRASZ: Picking an avatar isn’t about just aesthetics. It’s about picking an identity. It's about who you want to be. It’s about taking on a form and becoming it. Enough to feel like, this isn’t just an illusion, this is another reality.
He quoted famous radical academic Judith Butler claiming that gender is “performative.” That is, your behavior creates your identity. That’s why VR makes it possible to escape and undermine the “gender norms” in real life.
STRASZ: We have an environment that allows you to be an identity that you create, one you can mold, however you’d like, as well as an environment that is more welcoming of exploration, of experimentation of things, like gender, than in the real world.
I asked Stewart about this. He agreed that VR provides some people with an opportunity to live out transgender or other impulses. But it’s complicated.
STEWART: It's to your own desires, really. In a sense, yeah, some people struggle with that. I mean, transgenderism is is, is something that can come out of the space ... but at the same time, for some people that is sort of what they define themselves as while with other people. It's just something cool to have on.
He pointed out that people pick and use avatars in many ways and for many reasons. They often have several and change them regularly.
STEWART: Overall, it's not really a disconnect from physical being.
But he agreed that there is a sense in which people like to be in VR because they can pretend to transcend the limits of their human body. Of the physical world in which we live. Sure, it’s an illusion. But that’s the point of illusions. They seem real.
STEWART: It's all about no boundaries whatsoever. People are left up to whatever their mind can imagine, man, you've probably got millions of worlds that covered just about everything that you could ever think of. And, yeah, it's just, it's just no limits. Which is really where a lot of darkness comes in.
We’ll talk a lot more later about this. But first we’ll get back to Stewart’s story.
MUSIC: Losing Hope
Three years ago Stewart was, as we mentioned, not doing well. Late night drinking games every night. VR relationships that very nearly went IRL. But he wasn’t happy. Not at all.
To Stewart, the Gospel was just a story.
STEWART: And I had a question a doubt that I kept asking God, if He was there to hear me, which was, ‘What's so special about Jesus dying on the cross?’ ... I didn't really get it. And that just kept asking over months of time, and one day I was driving, and my body completely froze up. And I had goosebumps over every inch of my body. And I felt this overwhelming peace. And I wasn't even thinking about that question. But instantly, I had the answer, in such a clear and beautiful way. And in a way that I would never be able to put it that it was very clear that, that God was true, that God was real.
That was in 2020. He didn’t want to go back to the church he’d grown up in. So he went to the place he knew best: VRChat. He looked up a church world and went that Sunday. He went for a few weeks but what he heard didn’t sound right. Theologically.
He went looking for churches on AltspaceVR and found Cornerstone. There he met Jason Poling.
STEWART: We talked a good bit and then we actually went to back to VRChat. He joined me at, you know, what was what was considered home to me and He led me to Christ there and began discipling me.
On November 20, 2020, Stewart stood up before the Cornerstone fellowship and gave his testimony. Then Pastor Jason baptized him.
JASON: Amen amen. Give him some emoji love. That is a beautiful, beautiful testimony, brother.
In virtual reality.
JASON: Now, upon the good profession of your faith in Him, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. Now go ahead and go down in the water ...
Jason’s and Stewart’s avatars were standing on the edge of a large square tank with a ramp leading down into it. In the background was a night-time cityscape. About a dozen other avatars were there. To show approval, they sent up silent streams of hearts or applause emojis. The service was also being live-streamed to Cornerstone’s IRL sanctuary.
JASON: And now, Stewart, as you come back up out of that water, if you come back to me on the platform, that symbolizes as you come out of that water, you have been risen with Christ, to walk in a new way with him, you have given your entire existence over to Jesus Christ your Creator, Savior, and Lord …
Stewart Freeman was a new man. But he wasn’t yet the beagle.
That’s next time on Doubletake. Here’s a quick preview.
TED TALK EDUCATIONAL VIDEO: Imagine if you could plug your brain into a machine that would bring you ultimate pleasure for the rest of your life ...
STEWART: God kept putting pictures in my mind of how I wanted it to look, and …
BILLY SUNDAY: America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion! ...
ANGEL: I feel as though that in 2022, your Christian community should be more than the people in your zip code.
JASON THACKER: It shifts the idea of the world around us to something that’s malleable …
JEFF: For once we can actually be ahead of the curve. And rather than waiting for, you know, corporations to define what community looks like in virtual reality and augmented and with this new technology, why don't we the church get in there and actually start to define it now, instead of letting others tell us what we can and cannot do with it?
ZUCKERBERG: Our hope though, is that if we all work at it, and within the next decade, the metaverse will reach a billion people.
STEWART: And someone at the back said, “No one loves me. I’ve tried to take my life four times.”
Thanks for listening to this episode of Doubletake. I reported and wrote this episode. And produced it with the help of the creative team at The World and Everything in It. Please do take a minute to rate and review us. It's hard to overstate how important that is for helping others find this program.
And email us with your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. We want to hear from you, and we read everything.
Finally, if you have an idea for an episode, send it to us. We’re looking for story ideas that make us, well, do a double take. I’m Les Sillars. And we’ll see you next time.
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.