How Virtual Reality Activism Can Live Up to the Hype

Recently, 35 leaders in tech, international development, philanthropy and venture capital gathered at frog design in San Francisco for a Technology Salon debating the question, “Is Virtual Reality a New Paradigm for Humanitarianism or is it more Augmented Hype?”

Participants experienced virtual reality with several HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and frog design headsets. Coined by virtual reality creator Chris Milk as an “empathy machine”, we explored the potential, current needs, and opportunities for virtual and augmented reality to actually be able to help people create a better world.

Just a week after Sundance debuted Oculus for Good’s and others’ new lineup of virtual reality experiences and on the heels of HTC Vive announcing its $10 million VR for Impact fund to support impact-oriented immersion-based content, participants gathered to address critical questions and challenges as this emergent technology continues to grow to an expected $160 billion by 2020, according to Business Insider.

Days after thousands of people became activists at airports in San Francisco, New York, and across the United States, the conversation was heightened by participant’s awareness that they are adjusting to a new actual reality.

Impact virtual reality producers led the discussion alongside longtime international development practitioners who rooted the conversation in “on the ground” realities.

  • These include Barry Pousman, one of the producers along with Chris Milk and Gabo Arora of “Clouds Over Sidra” which tells the story of a Syrian girl in a Jordanian refugee camp, which led to a doubling of UNICEF’s donations.  Pousman, also the founder of Variable Labs, shared about the current questions for the future of immersion for impact, such as the need in all industries for a standard of ethics for content creators.
  • Erika Barraza, founder of a virtual reality startup that documented the women’s march and senior manager of impact partnerships for Singularity University, shared about her focus on enabling access to more local voices on the ground.
  • Other discussion leads included Chris Chin of HTC Vive who shared about HTC Vive’s VR 4 Impact fund and Amanda Noonan, head of frogImpact for the consulting firm frog design, who shared about the need for a more human-centered design process to guide all new reality production.

We explored the double-edged sword of virtual reality. For the dark side, we explored what would happen if, say, a terrorist organization such as ISIS got a hold of several headsets and forced people to watch loved ones die for extended periods as a torture mechanism.

For the bright side, we learned that a Sundance attendee who saw the virtual film “Chasing Coral” returned home and said he wanted to donate to protect the reefs. We learned that positive behavior change has been documented through reality: people who experienced life as a tree facing a chainsaw used several less pieces of paper towels than a control group.

We explored the large problem of distribution, as virtual reality content requires headsets that, beyond the Google Cardboard, the majority of the world still can’t afford. Some came to explore how to use virtual and augmented reality to improve training programs for their global teams. Others wanted to build upon its empathy-enabling powers by using it to teach about the conditions of factories along the value chain to help corporations better understand their mission.

The group agreed that the entire immersion industry needs more data about the long-term effects of impact-driven (and all) virtual reality content on viewers. The Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab is currently completing research that touches on that subject, which we eagerly await, but it’s just a start.  One participant asked for the others to take the lens of philanthropy and to be clear about defining who the audience is for ultimate effect, and to articulate that clearly.

Just 11 days into the new presidency, we explored the gaps and opportunities that will emerge in supporting communications and humanitarianism as we move forward. Several people expressed that they had learned a great deal about advancing virtual and augmented reality for impact, and many experienced virtual and augmented reality for the first time.

Can virtual reality activism for conservation, refugees, women’s empowerment, and therapy augment real-world efforts? For an industry with so much potential for both positive and negative ramifications, the only way for it to have a shot is through dedicated resources and cross-sector collaboration for needs identification, knowledge sharing, and the collaboration and innovation necessary to move the growing industry’s needle in the direction of positive outcomes.

Thanks to Vodafone Americas Foundation for sponsoring the discussion, to Inveneo for guiding it, and to frog design for hosting the conversation.

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