Feb 18, 2022
New world, new me! The science of metaverse relationships

Technological advances are continuously reshaping how people interact, engage, and communicate with one another in the digital world. But how will people navigate social situations in the metaverse? Canvas8 spoke to Dr. Guo Freeman about how people form relationships in social VR.


Dr. Guo Freeman is an assistant professor of human-centered computing at Clemson University. She has a number of published papers and her research focuses on how interactive technologies shape interpersonal relationships and group behaviour.

Avinash Akhal is a behavioural analyst at Canvas8. He holds a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Manchester and formerly worked as a researcher at the Education Policy Institute. Outside of work, he is either crafting his boxing skills, listening to a podcast or losing money on the stock market.

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In the 2022 Super Bowl, Meta launched a 60-second ad promoting its Meta Quest 2 (formerly Oculus Quest 2) in a bid to accelerate the mainstreaming of VR. The ad focuses on a personified animatronic band that lost touch in the ‘real world’ but rekindled their friendship in the metaverse. It captures the moment with the tagline ‘Old Friends. New Fun’ before the product promotion scene. Meta worked in partnership with the ad agency Anomaly LA and reportedly spent approximately $13 million for the 60-second spot. [1] The ad marks Meta’s foray into a new digital era – one that looks somewhat promising considering its Reality Labs saw a 22% year-on-year increase in revenue in Q4 2021. [2] However, with hype growing and consumers continuously discovering use cases within digital realms, many brands are still finding their footing in the metaverse.

Social VR is rapidly expanding, with many brands investing and attempting to position themselves in the emerging market. Some are working on the hardware required to enter the metaverse, like Meta, Google, and Microsoft, while others have created digital content to attract users in online spaces. According to a 2021 survey of American consumers, around a third (32%) of respondents claimed to own an AR or VR device, while a further 15% said they planned on purchasing one in 2022. [3] With interest and demand for social VR growing, it’s predicted that total VR/AR spending worldwide could rise to $72.8 billion in 2024, up from $12 billion in 2020. [4]

Among a plethora of features, social VR offers an immersive platform for people to interact, form relationships, and build intimate connections with brands. Assistant professor of human-centred computing in the School of Computing at Clemson University, Dr. Guo Freeman, has extensively studied human behaviour in social VR. Canvas8 spoke to her about how people build relationships in virtual worlds, what types of relationships people form, and what it means for brands.

Why is this topic important to understand, and how did you conduct your study?

To understand the present, we need to trace back to the origins of virtual worlds and online social interactions. Previously, people used online social spaces such as in multiplayer online games to interact with each other in a limited capacity; by text-only chat or on-screen avatars controlled by mouse, joystick, or keyboard. However, today, online social interactions in social VR are becoming more immersive and embodied. For instance, players use voice chat features and create full-body tracked avatars to present themselves. Full-body tracking means the movements of their avatar body correspond to the movements of their physical body in real-time. In the near future, those types of online interactions will become popular, especially among younger generations.

Immersive experiences refer to features that make users feel like they are physically situated in the environment, such as viewing content across 360 degrees using a VR headset, which creates a feeling of presence. While embodiment refers to players using their bodies to control virtual avatars. People can wear a full-body tracked device that allows an avatar to mimic in-world body movements and interact with other virtual avatars with voice chat features. Previously, these features would have been completed using a mouse, a joystick or a keyboard. The immersive and embodied features are generally seen as the most significant benefits of using social VR.

In our paper, we wanted to look at how people build relationships in social VR. We specifically set out to uncover what type of relationships people could make in virtual worlds, how people create them, and how people would start a new relationship or friendship with others in more immersive and embodied ways. We recruited 30 participants via Reddit sub-groups based on popular social VR platforms. In terms of demographics, most of our participants were White males, but we also included females, minorities, and people from the LGBTQ+ community in our sample.

Social VR is a relatively supportive environment, unlike traditional gamingGucci (2021)

What were your key findings?

People typically use three leading platforms for social VR – AltSpaceVR, VRChat, and Rec Room. Other platforms are emerging, like Meta Horizon and Roblox. Each platform is tailored to a specific audience; for instance, professionals regularly use AltspaceVR for events, workshops, professional development, and we’ve seen that members of the LGBTQ+ community tend to run activities here. VRChat is more playful, and players can create rooms and activities and customise their avatars. Rec Room is more of a game-based platform, where users can play Dungeons and Dragons, Poker, Pool, and other game-based activities.

One of the main takeaways from our interview analysis is that social VR is a relatively supportive environment, unlike traditional gaming platforms, which are notorious for their toxic culture. Players in social VR communities tend to be happy to offer help and support. In particular, people from the LBGTQ+ community were able to form community support systems within social VR, and for some, this would be their only form of support as they didn’t have offline support. The combination of a supportive community and the embodied avatar experience empowered many in the real world and helped them understand their identities better.

When we asked the participants about social interactions in these spaces, we found that people tended to enter new virtual spaces alone rather than with friends they already knew in the offline world. We also found an added layer of risk in virtual worlds. Full body tracked avatars, along with voice chat, can be identifiable, and in some cases, this has led to stalking or harassment – which can be concerning considering the physicalised in-game features make negative interactions feel very realistic.

People already have ideas about what they want the future of virtual spaces to look like – many are hoping for more personalised features, such as precise facial and body tracking devices that offer users more freedom for expression. They also want a more comprehensive array of avatar skins that accurately represent their racial, gender, and sexual identities. There’s also a demand for more family-friendly platforms and activities as many want to meet family members online who may be geographically distant.

People are eager for representation in virtual worldsHorizon Worlds (2022)

What are the implications for brands from this research?

When brands enter social VR platforms and interact with customers, they’ll need to leverage the immersive and embodied experience. People have an intimate relationship with their bodies and will respond well to features that combine their offline and online physical experiences. But simultaneously, people are sensitive to how others present themselves in online spaces. Brands should also leverage non-verbal communication such as gaze and body language and be considerate of their virtual personas. They should set up their desired social atmosphere and expectations from the start.

Social VR goes beyond common activities like gaming; we've seen that people seek greater value from online worlds, such as mental health support, social belonging, and professional development. The tipping point for these spaces ties into how brands present and advertise themselves in the online world.

Gaming in the metaverse is a more immersive, embodied experienceOculus (2022)

Insights and opportunities

Searching for similarity

Online groups already exist in the present world within social media and forums, but the metaverse adds another layer of embodied experiences that cannot be attained using a keyboard or a mouse. As a result, people are using social VR to find like-minded individuals and build online communities that align with their identities and interests. By the end of December 2020, Meta experienced a drastic rise in the number of Facebook groups related to AR/VR, with the most significant year-on-year increase of 649% stemming from South Korea, while the UK experienced a 67% increase, and the USA rose by 52%. [5] For brands in these spaces, there’s an opportunity to build tailored social VR spaces for marginalised communities, such as ethnic minorities and the LGBTQ+ community, with services tailored to their specific needs. In doing this, brands should ensure that they do not unintentionally recreate real-world divisions in social VR groups.

Digital representation

People are generally aware of the importance of representation in gaming environments due to its ability to stimulate feelings of belonging and inclusion. But in the metaverse, representation plays a more significant role due to the ability to embody an avatar. Research has found that around 70% of people believe gender representation within virtual experiences is highly important, and 60% were concerned about the potential for discrimination against disabled people within virtual spaces. [6] People want more choice and diversity in avatar skins as they want more freedom to express their racial, gender, and sexual identities. For brands, there is scope to produce digital assets or NFTs to be used in the metaverse and create platforms to allow users to craft their own identities.

The new workplace

As it stands, virtual reality spaces tend to be used most frequently for entertainment purposes. But with hybrid work on the up, businesses are starting to utilise virtual spaces for meetings, events, and conferences. A report by XR Association found that 92% of human resource professionals viewed immersive technologies as a crucial post-pandemic recovery tool. [7] VR technology is becoming increasingly accessible, with brands like Meta, Microsoft, and Google continuously improving VR headset technology. With new technology, the metaverse can be harnessed to boost efficiencies and creative business innovations without facing geographical restrictions. Alongside the use case of virtual meeting rooms, there’s scope for brands to create new products that supplement the virtual experience, such as instant voice translation to enable cross-border meetings. Brands like Gymshark and Balenciaga have already begun experimenting with metaverse meetings, and brands like are constructing artist-built spaces in which these meetings can be held.

Open Sourced Education

Online education and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have grown dramatically in recent years as university education prices continue to increase and people search for more tailored learning opportunities. By 2021, around 220 million people had enrolled on online courses on platforms like Coursera, edX, and FutureLearn. [8] The metaverse has potential to offer a next step in online education due to its world-building and exploring capabilities – students could meet with other students from all corners of the globe while studying subjects in an immersive setting. Brands are already exploring educational opportunities in the metaverse. In 2021, Roblox pledged a $10 million fund to encourage creators to build learning experiences, and the HOLO-MUSEUM metaverse also plans to populate its world with educational activities.