The responsible development of XR technology requires a diverse community of voices to help build it. To celebrate the limitless number of perspectives in the XR industry, the XR Association sat down with Guo Freeman, an associate professor of human-centered computing at Clemson University.
Professor Freeman is also the director of the Clemson University Gaming And Mediated Experience Lab (CU Game Lab), which looks at how interactive technologies such as multiplayer online games, and social VR shape, interpersonal relationships and group behaviors. Below is an excerpt of the interview with Professor Freeman, which has been edited slightly for brevity and clarity.
1. Let’s first talk about your XR story. What sparked your interest in researching and working with social VR?
I’ve always been interested in gaming and virtual worlds. My first interaction with computers was trying to install and play games through the Microsoft DOS system in elementary school. [Seeing it personally,] I’ve been so fascinated with the ways people can engage in immersive virtual worlds and experience something different from the offline world. I’ve also played games with a lot of online strangers, and I’ve always been interested in the ways strangers who don’t know each other, who probably would never see each other in the offline world, could actually work together, build trust, and get to know each other just by playing games online together.
Even before XR was introduced to the mass consumer market, I’d been studying how people build relationships and interact in online games for more than a decade. But around 2018 I started studying social VR as a new domain, and with even more promises for online social interactions. I was interested in seeing how these new technologies would shape people’s lives, social behaviors, and social experiences in VR. I also wanted to know whether or not this would introduce new problems or risks as seen with other virtual world games.
2. How do your background and identity shape your ability to do your job?
That’s a really good question, and I think that can help explain why I really focus on marginalized users’ experiences and challenges in social VR spaces.
I am an Asian woman in STEM, and my identity helps me understand the importance of marginalized tech users’ experiences and their challenges in virtual environments. From my own perspective, we don’t want to build these future technologies without thinking about [marginalized communities] and their struggles. The worst case is we build something that will further reinforce those populations’ vulnerability and marginalization in both online and technical spaces.
Regarding my background, I have an interdisciplinary background and a Ph.D. degree in Information Science. This focus on both technology design and human experience has really helped me understand this problem space and study social experiences in online environments from a socio-technical perspective.
3. Can you share some more about the CU Game Lab at Clemson? What have been some of the research and studies that have come from that?
Social VR research is one of our most recent research areas, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. In this project, we focus on understanding and mitigating harassment in social VR. We have been doing a lot of work to understand the new types of harassment that people are encountering in social VR, current strategies to mitigate harassment, and what new technologies, features, or mechanisms we can design at the platform level. In general, we want to understand and design novel social VR technologies for inclusion, diversity, and social good.
Besides social VR, we still do a lot of work on gaming and live streaming. We want to study how those interactive technologies transform the ways in which people need to interact and communicate in a collaborative outlet. For example, our work includes how people perceive fairness of their in-game purchases and how live streamers create their self-presentation online and how that affects their interactions with viewers. We have also done some research on broadening public participation in technology and bottom-up technological innovation through online collaboration, such as how indie game developers leverage live streaming to collaboratively innovate game development. This work was also supported by the National Science Foundation.
So overall, we do a lot of work around those sociotechnical themes on mediated experience and social dynamics forged surrounding various technological and collaborative systems and artifacts, in order to design and develop more inclusive, supportive, and fulfilling user experiences with technology.
4. So what kind of advice do you have for younger people, like students and others who are interested in doing this kind of research and work?
One of my strengths is that I have this sociotechnical perspective. It’s important to know the technical stuff if you’re working on designing software or hardware. You probably want to know how to code and how to build things. But it’s also important to understand humans. If younger generations want to build a product or a computing technology that could actually benefit people socially and emotionally, [regarding] technology design, you could have something completely functional, but no one wants to use it. You want to have strong technical skills so you can actually build something tangible people can use and benefit [from], but you also need to understand people’s social and emotional needs.
It’s also important to always stay curious and always be open to learning because the field changes so fast.
5. Let’s dive a little more into your research. One piece that specifically stood out to me is a paper you recently co-wrote for the ACM Conference. Can you share a little about that and what you found?
Yes, we recently published that paper and it actually won a Best Paper honorable mention award at ACM CHI 2023, which is one of the most prestigious venues for Human-Computer Interaction research. In this research, we interviewed 29 LGBTQ+ social VR users. We [asked] them what type of social support they experienced in social VR and how they used unique social VR features to experience support.
We were motivated to do this work because we realize LGBTQ+ individuals require lots of social support to help them get through the transition process or to understand their gender and sexual identity, especially for younger people. We wanted to explore this new social VR medium and how it would change the landscape of social support for LGBTQ+ communities.
What we found is that social VR is actually popular for those individuals. Participants specifically mentioned four types of support they could get in social VR, including network support and emotional support for building a safe LGBTQ+. At the same time, issues still persist. Sometimes revealing their identity online would attract additional harassment. Online harassment is a very pervasive issue. Sometimes, while they were seeking online support, they would also encounter online harassment.
Participants also talked about how they’re leveraging social VR for support, especially for those who don’t have access to LGBTQ+ support resources in their areas. One of the best [things about] social VR, is that even if you’re online, you really feel like you’re sitting next to each other and talking, so they have this co-presence. It’s very similar to if you just talk with someone offline.
[The full title of the paper is] We Cried on Each Other’s Shoulders. That’s actually an exact quote from a participant. They said, ‘We just cried on each other’s shoulders in social VR, and that really makes me feel like I’m not alone.’ That’s an excellent example to show why the quality of social support you get from social VR can be felt so much more tangible and realistic than anything else you could get online.
6. Why is this important? What do you see as the impact of social VR and XR in LGBTQ+ communities?
In social VR, users can attend events and support meetings with others in their community. So usually you go and it’s like sitting around a campfire, or it’s like a theater-type scene. And then you can share your experience and make some friends and they can support each other by giving solutions. One of our papers actually talks about one instance where a father came to one of those events and said his daughter identifies as queer. So he went there to understand more about this population, and how people deal with their identity crisis and problems online/offline. Everyone in that group just shared their experience and told the dad what he could do to support his daughter. And I think one person actually said something like, ‘can you be my dad because you’re so good to your daughter.’ So yeah, I think that [social VR] is very [beneficial] for those marginalized individuals.
I also really like my research and like to talk with others about it. It is important to educate the general population about users’ expectations and the current online situation or what to be mindful of. I think this all goes back to a trust issue. If people feel like XR is always harassment and there’s nothing good out of it they’re not going to use it. But if we do want to advocate for XR, we do need to let people know we are working very hard to make this inclusive, safe, and supportive for everyone.
7. How has the industry changed since you started doing this kind of research?
We did our first research in 2019, so it has been four years. And since then, the industry has changed a lot. At that time, it was considered a very niche area.
Now this perception [has] changed a little bit, [but] not dramatically. More people [are getting] to know social VR spaces and their benefits. Social VR has attracted more diverse populations than, say, four years ago, because there are a lot of LGBTQ+, women, and minorities in social VR. We will also know a lot of disabled users and children are in social VR. The user base has definitely changed.
The hardware has changed too. Hardware is getting lighter, and probably better quality and we [also] have portable, wireless devices. When I just started studying, you always needed to connect the VR headset to a computer, but now like with the Quest, you can just move around and now we have the newest Apple headset. Moving forward, the hardware will continue to improve.
[Unfortunately,] social VR still lacks an inclusive culture and a clear consensus on social norms. That’s something that came from my work on harassment in social VR. We found that a lot of times, the root cause of harassment or harmful behaviors in social VR is that people don’t understand what are appropriate behaviors in social VR.
We have seen kids and adults have very different perceptions and expectations about what you can and cannot do in social VR. There should be something to set up people’s expectations about going to those spaces and what you should expect, and if you encounter problems, what you should do to mitigate or manage those problems.
8. At XRA we like to say the XR industry has a limitless future. What does that mean to you?
I really like your slogan. For me, it’s really about the limitless human experience. You can really leverage XR to enrich what people experience and connect people regardless of distance. Before, when you needed to connect with your long-distance partner for example, you could only write a letter, and then you could call, and then you could text or video chat, but with XR, you add another layer of physical togetherness, because you can hug each other and really feel each other’s presence.
There are also a lot more senses you can [feel] in XR. For example, I have interviewed disabled users that said they could fly in VR, and could really experience how they could walk or dance. These embodied and immersive experiences could really benefit their offline lives too. When I talk about limitless, it’s really what you could experience. XR is really limitless. I’ll say, ‘where’s the technology moving forward?’ I believe people will have more nuanced and novel experiences in XR.
I also think it [means] limitless social support. Let’s see what technology becomes. In XR, when you cry or feel down, people can actually come to pat your shoulder and then give you a hug. That really means something. That’s what we found fascinating from our own researchers, and people really appreciated this simulated physical touch. Moving forward, people could have more limitless and [varied] social support through XR.