Virtual Reality (VR) is entering the mass market and attracting a lot of publicity for both positive and negative reasons. Advocates see VR as an exciting development in communication technology, whilst critics contest the hardware’s antisocial appearance, as well as the ethical implications of plugging in-and-out of another reality.
As with all new technologies we can debate their potential for good or evil. But in a world where there is a growing disparity between the have’s and have not’s, GDP and wellbeing, and real societal needs – any technology that can reconnect us and expand our understanding of the human experience is surely good.
The argument against
Recently on Radio 4, John Humphrys shared his first VR experience (overlooking the irony of this being on the radio). In discussion with Henry Stuart from Visualise, Humphrys voiced his concerns about using VR in journalism and the potential for the technology to diminish or belittle the experience of victims in news stories, specifically the plight of Syrian refugees.
I disagree with John Humpreys concerns and believe the VR has great journalistic potential. Chris Milk’s film for the United Nations, Clouds Over Sidra, follows a twelve-year-old girl named Sidra in the Za’atari camp in Jordan. It’s an arresting viewing experience, which highlights the severity of the situation by placing the audience in the shoes of a vulnerable child.
Much like traditional media, there are legitimate moral questions to be asked over the types of content we should have access to. But what makes VR stand apart is its power to create empathy.
I appreciate that technology is often used to remove us from reality and acts as a form of escapism. However VR can in fact enhance our understanding of reality, connecting us through our immersion into the worlds of others. Thereby, depending upon the intention of the viewer, it can overcome barriers, ignorance and judgement.
News publications are recognising this potential and are starting to experiment using this new medium of storytelling. Vice News and the New York Times have both produced 360 features in collaboration with app, VRSE; the short films transporting the viewer into the world of their subjects, giving a new perspective of their situation and story.
To date, mainstream use of VR has been for entertainment or marketing purposes such as gaming, cinema, real estate or tourism. However there are an emerging number of niche applications in other areas that demonstrate the versatility of the technology and the potential benefits it can have for society.
Making experiences more accessible
Just as the Internet has lead to the democratisation of information, so too can VR democratise experiences. Whether its trips to museum exhibitions, theme parks or a zoo, VR can take us to locations that were previously inaccessible either because of financial or geographical reasons. (Take a look at the 360 video we filmed in the Meerkat enclosure at London Zoo.).
One of the most touching examples of this is by C.S Mott Children’s Hospital who brought Oculus Rift headsets in for the seriously ill children to play with so they could take a break from the hospital setting.
Deeper contextual understanding
VR is also changing the way we learn. Medical professionals can now receive training using VR software to practice procedures such a CPR, catheter insertion and the Heimlich manoeuvre. This is helping medical facilities and hospitals reduce costs and has resulted in higher retention levels among participants than traditional training methods.
Control of the experience
Unlike video, VR allows you look wherever you want within the scene. Traditionally the director controls the viewer’s gaze, they frame what you want you to see, whereas VR gives the viewer autonomy of their viewing experience. This has exciting implications for documentary films and news broadcasts, which currently can only capture a fraction of the entire scene at one time.
VR is here to stay
Investment by Facebook, Google, Sony and HTC is evidence that VR will become increasingly prevalent in our everyday life, influencing how we communicate, play and learn.
If we can put on hold for a moment the potential risks or concerns of VR (e.g. motion sickness, replacing human contact, neurological impact, evil applications), as human intention will ultimately dictate the result of use. If the intention of the user is to connect, sense and broaden their perspective of what is being viewed than surely VR can only be good for journalism, communication and society.
Regardless of the medium, we can never truly experience what other humans are experiencing, sensing and feeling without being them. But we can connect to and tell stories at a deeper level of understanding – we can see and feel.
As an experience designer I take the view that the more we can connect to humans, their context, perspective and environment on both a physical and emotional level, the better we can be at helping them solve their day to day problems.