Up until this point, virtual technologies have been the domain of far-fetched sci-fi films and empty promises from large tech firms. What you know about virtual reality technology may centre around the pixelated worlds that can be created for more interactive gaming, turning your smartphone into a rollercoaster to be enjoyed on birthdays and Christmas. Even becoming more widely available through a recent Snapchat update which allows users to position a virtual version of themselves on real-world objects through the magic of tracking software.
Entertainment has been a significant commercial aspect of technology to date. However, some little-known, but powerful work, is being done in the realms of education, health, communication and policy making. Curiscope’s Virtual-Tee allows its wearers explore the insides of their chest cavity through their iPhone, perfect for a science lesson. Then there’s Oxsight who use augmented technology that helps those who are visually impaired, to see once more.
An October announcement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg asserted the company’s “commitment to VR”, with their Oculus Go headsets. It’s set to be put into the hands of a billion people across the world, making the technology widely available. The product, once released, is positioned to be the cheapest on the market. Facebook’s VR wing is incrementally but almost certain to change the landscape of the technology in the near future. “One brick at a time” according to Wired Magazine. It could potentially change the way we interact with the technology in our everyday lives.
“…For the first time, people across the world can experience first-hand the lives of people who they have never met and have nothing in common with.”
While social media is pushing us further back into our own echo chambers as a result of smart algorithms, these technologies can show us the points of view of other people – something increasingly scarce today. This possibility could offer a solution to polarisation and divisions we see widespread in our society. As Brexit and the election of Donald Trump only illustrate further, the use of evidence and facts are futile in the face of the intelligent use of emotive arguments. It’s what people are responsive to; it’s in our nature to believe myths. Although nowadays, the myths we buy into are primarily smart marketing strategies and ads. Knowing this is an essential step in the future of humanity. VR, through immersive storytelling, may offer a significant leverage in reaching common goals when hard-hitting facts, leaflets, research and evidence are failing.
Well, that is the belief of the UN at least. Since 2015, the 71-year-old institution has been forward-thinking in their adaption of Virtual Technology. Using it as an aid to inform policymaking through emotional storytelling and pushing “the boundaries of empathy”. It allows the people who decide the fate of those halfway across the world to be at the centre of personal stories. From victims themselves and scientists.
This effort is known as UNVR; it aims to “advance the UN’s advocacy efforts on a larger scale in a more sustainable way.” To become a “stronger and more informed advocate”, for policies concerning a range of issues from climate change to the refugee crises. It includes curated playlists of some innovative 360-degree video and 3D virtual reality. It can immerse the wearer in the depths of the worst affected oceans, coasts suffering from rising tides or active war zones in Gaza. Opening up the four walls of decision making boardrooms to the experiences of people. It even allows real-time discussions to take place between those affected and those in power to make real, personal connections. Arguably the root of all good decisions, for the greater good.
One such film is Clouds Over Sidra, showing an important story of the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, home to over 80,000 Syrians who have fled war in their country. It focuses on the story of one 12-year-old girl named Sidra who has lived there since 2003, going about her daily life in the camp. Participants who were treated to the experience remarked that it felt authentic and were deeply moved by it, evoking empathy in viewers. Sidra’s voice is a chilling reminder that refugees are also people with hopes, desires and fears. A narrative often lost through the media which often vilify these refugees. When charities use this technology, they find that using VR significantly boosts people’s donations and boasts the impressive power of the technology.
Imagine the impact if Zuckerberg’s ambitious assertion was true, that they will be putting cheap but powerful VR into the hands of a billion people. If, for the first time, people across the world can experience first-hand the lives of people who they have never met and have nothing in common with. Other than the fact that they are connected by the membership of the same species. Giving a face and personal story to otherwise unknown and far-away issues and making them local.
It may be the difference between peace and nuclear war, closed and open borders, liberal marriage laws or oppressive policies, climate change efforts or sustained global warming. Or even uniting an electorate with shared values. So far the promise of true Virtual Reality for consumers has not been met. But we must hold out for the overwhelming potential that this communication technology can offer in the advancement of humanity.