I was in the living room of my childhood home, watching my mother as she stared out of the window, reeling from the news of her diagnosis. I could feel the carpet soft under my toes, and hear music in the background. “I wanted to save you from all the suffering,” Mom said as she turned and then embraced me with one of her never-let-you-go hugs before I said goodbye.
And then it all vanished, because this was just a virtual reality (VR) experience — one nothing like anything I’d experienced before. Draw Me Close is a VR-meets-theater performance that takes the audience on a journey through the memories of its creator, playwright Jordan Tannahill. The experience centers around interactions with his own mother, played by a flesh-and-blood actor who was in the virtual space with me.
The use of touch throughout the performance has a huge impact; my virtual mother and I drew pictures together, held hands, and she even tucked me into bed. Before the performance began, I was reassured that there would be “light touch” and was asked for my consent. It added intimacy and emotional power to Jordan’s story, certainly; consensual touch, research has found, can help to build trust and connection, encourage empathy, and minimize stress.
But when touch occurs without consent it can be uncomfortable, unsettling, and form the basis of harassment and assault. And in the new world of virtual reality, this raises an important question: How do we ensure that virtual touch doesn’t violate people in VR spaces?
Understanding virtual embodiment — the phenomenon of believing that we are physically embodying another object or virtual avatar — is critical to the creation of VR experiences. In an influential 1998 study known as the “rubber hand illusion,” participants viewed a rubber hand being stroked while their own hand was stroked out of sight at the same time; every participant began to regard the rubber hand as part of their own body. The concept was…