Last week, I participated in about ten Zoom meetings. Four of the Zoom sessions were church related: Sunday morning class, worship, Men’s Bible Study, and an Emmaus reunion. Each meeting lasted about an hour and were beneficial since I was unable to attend in person. The other Zoom meetings were nonprofit committee meetings. One of the meetings lasted over two continuous hours with many PowerPoint slides shared via Zoom. After an hour, I tired of looking at my computer screen, remembering to mute/unmute, and trying not to speak over other participants.
Facebook is offering virtual reality (VR). Horizon Workrooms was unveiled as the next generation of virtual meetings. Participants need to download a free app and purchase a VR headset. Instead of seeing the checkerboard of faces on your computer screen, users will see animated “co-workers” seated around a virtual table. When speaking, their animated mouths will move in-sync along with body movements. “Spatial audio” will project voices in different directions. When your animated body turns toward the speaker, your sound level will increase. This technology is like watching an animated cartoon, except you are a live cartoon character and acting in real time.
I have not tried this new technology, so perhaps I am prematurely writing this blog. In a recent Financial Times (FT) opinion, It’s Office Life, But Not as We Know It: Virtual Reality Cannot Yet Solve the Problems of Hybrid Working (The Editorial Board, August 27, 2021), the writer was not impressed. “Users often find VR headsets are too heavy to wear for longer than half an hour or so; they can cause nausea, headaches or fatigue as the brain struggles to interpret the virtual world. And who wants to see colleagues turned into cartoonish avatars? … Then there is privacy: some businesses will have qualms over the idea of sound, body movements and shared content all going through Facebook’s servers. … And what if Facebook decides to float ads into this virtual space?”
This is a step towards “metaverse” where your personal avatar will take part in daily VR life: dancing, playing games, exercising, hanging out with friends, meetings, etc. Avatars may even be replaced with your personal hologram like you see at Disneyland or in ghost movies. Your electronic features may one day be transferred virtually around the world while you stay put in your home. Image climbing a virtual mountain with your virtual friends while drinking a hot latte at home!
Creative ideas are usually welcomed in the marketplace and Horizon Workrooms may be an economic success, but it does cause me to worry. During the pandemic, I used Zoom and other virtual technologies because it was a safe way to meet and not spread Covid. Zoom was much better than conference phone meetings as the technology added visual to audio communication. I just can’t relate to an animated character that represents another person. During a Facetime with my granddaughter, she added emojis to the screen. She laughed; I didn’t as I felt it distracts from our conversation. The generational differences were very apparent!
What does this have to do with our faith? I fear that one day, church worship will be exclusively virtual. Our animated figures will sway to the music, animated heads will bow in prayer, and my avatar will sit still when an animated minister preaches. Perhaps the worship service will be produced ahead of time so that everything works perfectly? Our virtual characters will arrive at the allotted time, then the show begins. All this seems so void of what makes humanity human: a warm, real human body.
I greatly miss hugging and shaking hands with church members. I miss side conversations with my fellow Board of Trustee members and sharing a communal meal together. When I was working, I would just stroll around the trading floor and chat casually with the traders. I learned more from these impromptu one-on-one conversations than from all the trade publications. One day while in London, it snowed while I was working from home. The street traffic and public transportation came to a halt. I had a coffee scheduled with one of my senior traders, so I walked the two icy miles to a coffee shop. She was surprised that I made it. I looked at her and said, “You will always know how much I value you when you witnessed me trudging through the snow to meet with you.” Reality trumps virtual reality.
Jesus understood community and personal connections. First century Jews did not have a choice between reality or virtual reality. Paul walked through the ancient world to spread the Gospel. Jesus understood what makes humanity human. “Then Jesus asked, ‘Who touched me?’ When all denied it, Peter said, ‘Master, the crowds surround you and press in on you.’ But Jesus said, ‘Someone touched me; for I noticed that power had gone out from me.’ (Luke 8:45–46) Being physically near to a person is so important.
There is such power in a physical human touch, an in-person expression, and spending physical time within community. Technology can assist when being physically near is not possible or safe, but virtual reality will never beat the real thing. My hope and prayer will be that people prioritize in-person reality once the pandemic gets back under control. Our humanity depends on it.