A Birthday Party in VR: Connecting While Social Distancing

In a time of social distancing, using XR technologies can amplify human connections and memories.
Gabe Paez
June 19, 2020

XR/VR Enhances, Not Replaces, Our Social Connections

Last week, I gave a talk at the VR/AR Global Summit Online Conference and Expo on “The Virtualization of Transportation,” where I discussed the ways virtual reality can revolutionize both our professional and personal interactions. We typically think of using The Wild and other VR platforms in a business context—for hosting team meetings, collaborating on designs, and visualizing architectural models before building them out—but VR has the amazing potential to enhance our social connections, too. 

Here’s a great example: last weekend, my oldest daughter, Clara, had her ninth birthday. I really wanted to do something special for her, but since we’re still practicing social distancing, we couldn’t have a traditional party and gather with our community in the same physical space. So we decided to host a party for her and three of her best friends in virtual reality.

VR Birthday Party: More Fun, Less Cleanup 

None of Clara’s friends had ever been in VR before, so it was quite an adventure. I have an Oculus Quest at my house, and I borrowed three others from colleagues for the rest of the kids. We charged all of the headsets and made sure the controllers had fresh batteries, then we labeled each one with the kid’s name. Finally, we drove to each house with a package including a headset, controllers, cupcakes, and a party hat.

Back at our house, we fired up a Zoom call, and I showed the kids how to use the controllers and adjust their headsets. Once they got the hang of it, we all hopped into The Wild. Our first stop was a game of life-sized checkers, followed by a run through a maze (the kids got a little lost, but found their way as I helped them along). Then we chilled on a pirate ship for a while and played with animals from Sketchfab before we headed back to land to explore  a cave.

After that, we went to the Stonewall Inn and made some art, had a Taylor Swift dance party in a tree on the side of a cliff, and finished up by singing “Happy Birthday” and enjoying some virtual cake. Finally, we all jumped back over to Zoom to eat real cupcakes together.

Virtual Connections Lead to Real Memories

The activities may have been a bit different than your traditional birthday festivities, but at the end of the day, it was a nine-year-old girl’s party—and it was awesome. Yes, it was cool to be in virtual reality, but the best part was that they had a good time together. Even though we weren’t with Clara’s friends in the same physical space, I have a memory about this party now, and the kids do, too. They can look back on the different things they did and carry the memory of that experience with them, just like they would from any other event. 

All of this gives me so much hope. While we won’t always be as isolated from our communities as we are now, the ability to meet and interact with anyone, from anywhere, all without leaving our homes, opens up so many possibilities to amplify our personal connections. Virtual reality gives us the opportunity to interact with people in a meaningful way, without having to travel and without losing the human connection that’s often missing from other forms of digital communication.

It was great to see this type of virtual interaction, not just as something we could do someday in the distant future, but as something we did last weekend. Of course, it was imperfect. Hanging out with friends in VR is not a fully realized experience yet, but there’s the seed of something special there—the seed of something exciting. 


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