A purple spirit offered me their hand – how immersive technology elicits profound anonymous connections

I have found myself dropped in the centre of an exhilarating party, surrounded by colorful particle bodies moving, dancing, gesturing and clapping all around me. Almost immediately a purple body rushed over and slowly reached his hand towards me, inviting me to connect. I have reached back, and once our hands touched, the fireworks of particles filled my visual filled with my blue particles flowing towards him and his purple particles flowing back and filling my body. A wave of warmth and excitement rushed through my body from my stomach up into my face filling me up with joy. I didn’t know who this person was, whether it was one of my colleagues, or a complete stranger, what was their race or gender, or even if we spoke the same language. I knew that he saw my blue aura, offered his hand and saw me reaching back. This special moment I have shared with a stranger somewhere in the world felt comforting in its anonymity, yet it was intimate and deeply profound.
Being skeptical of virtuality of our online interactions, I work with interactive technologies to create art installations that aim to engage people in shared gallery space sparking conversations and enabling new connections. My colleague and I have created an installation called Body-RemiXer that turns people’s bodies into virtual auras consisted of fireflies-like particles. Participants find themselves surrounded by these auras and when they high-five each other, their virtual auras connect with particles now flowing between them representing the newly established connection. This experience was purposefully designed around the tactile contact to ground otherwise virtual interaction in real bodies.
However, in 2020 many galleries had to go virtual, and we had to move the Body RemiXer from happening gallery space into the online network world, resulting in Body-RemiXer [online]. On the opening day, not certain of what to expect from this virtual event, my colleagues and I, in our respective homes put on the Virtual Reality headsets and have joined the gallery space. To our surprise we found ourselves surrounded by a busy party of virtual bodies, lurching towards each other and playing around, giving high-fives left and right. There was no way to tell who is hiding behind this avatars, so when a seemingly tall purple body approached me and offered me their hand to connect, I excitedly but timidly reached back and surprised to find myself over-filled with a profound emotion recognizing the meaningfulness of this moment – that there was another person someone in the world who sees my blue spirit-like body holding their hand.
Despite being one of the designer of this experience, and knowing in detail how and why it was implemented this way, I was still deeply touched by this instance. Virtual Reality offered a unique way to connect with someone, that felt borderline spiritual. Unlike common social VR spaces, Body Remixer [online] didn’t encourage customization of cartoony avatars for me to create a virtual identity. Instead it obscured any identifiable features, living a ghostly silhouette, that can only be identified as a human being, without any further definition. This offered an anonymous connection, inconsequential in terms of actual relationships, but nonetheless, deeply meaningful
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