Virtual reality gives social recluses a chance to start over

Virtual reality started with computer games. But these days it has evolved into a community where people are free to be whoever they want and can make friends who share their values.

A Japanese man who has lived as a social recluse, or hikikomori, for more than two years is finding a new life in the virtual world.

"Phio" is a virtual YouTuber who posts videos using an avatar he made of a girl with green hair.

After graduating from college, he started working at a major company. He got married and had two children. After six years, he quit and joined a startup. He was excited about the chance to experience something new but he found things difficult. He was unable to deliver the expected results and gradually started distancing himself from his colleagues. He fell into a funk and soon found it difficult to even get out of bed. He went to see a doctor who diagnosed him with depression. For the next two years, he rarely left home.

Last year, he became a virtual YouTuber. He always enjoyed drawing and felt that YouTube would be a good outlet for his creative energy. He designed a character and started posting videos.

"After I got ill, I couldn't bear to think about living and about my future," he says. "But I thought, maybe I can start over and make a brand new self as a virtual YouTuber."

Phio's video

Virtual YouTubers are online personalities who use VR headsets and controllers to reflect their movements and voices through an online avatar.

Phio says the joy he got from participating in VR platforms pushed him to re-engage with society. He talks to other virtual YouTubers about things such as online games. His channel has gradually gained popularity, recently passing 10,000 subscribers.

Phio says it was reassuring to find that he's able to do things in the virtual world that he feels he can't in the real world.

"I lost hope, I didn't want to have anything to do with reality," he says. "But in virtual space, I made friends who would watch over me. That made me think it's OK to live again."

Phio communicates with other virtual YouTubers on a VR platform.

Phio's dream is to create a virtual community where people can spend the majority of their time, where they can have a full life. In May of last year, he set up a company with several friends and started planning large-scale VR events.

They are focusing their efforts on organizing events called 'virtual markets' at which participants can purchase goods as their avatars. 125,000 people participated in one held this March. Phio and his colleagues are planning another one this fall.

Phio started a company that organizes VR events.

"Thanks to technology, we are able to live in virtual space in a similar way to how we live in the reality," Phio says. "I hope to create a virtual society in which those who think they can't recover in the real world can be reborn and start over."

It's estimated that more than 3 million people around the world are members of virtual communities. The connections they make online empower them to take on the challenges they face in their real lives.