Using Virtual Reality for Teachable Moments

Associate Professor Jeremy Bailenson stands in front of computers that render the virtual world seen through the headset. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)
Professor Jeremy Bailenson stands in front of the computers that render the virtual world seen through the headset.

Could Virtual Reality bring us world peace?

If you’re not using VR as a family entertainment attraction, then maybe.

“There’s a reason people aren’t playing video games for ten hours a day in VR,” says Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Virtual Human Interactions Lab at Stanford University.

“VR’s not for being used all the time.  It’s for… intense, teachable a-ha moments.”

Jeremy talked to Kara Swisher about the release of his new book Experience on Demand, which looks at the psychological effects of VR, rather than just entertainment, and how it could be used to help us recover from trauma, improve our learning and communication abilities, enhance our empathic and imaginative capacities, end climate change and maybe, someday, even bring us world peace.

Ok. World peace is a stretch.

But his VHIL is talking concrete steps toward ending racism and climate change with VR, which isn’t where most industry pundits tend to be focused.

“There’s been a tension which is that [for] the corporations, their job is to make money. They make money when everybody’s using VR…all day long, so that’s why you’re seeing film and media and video games [being made]” continues to Jeremy in a podcast released today by Recode.

One of the areas Jeremy and his students are interested in is social justice. They’ve been experimenting with the use of VR to teach tolerance for nearly two decades.

The basic idea is letting you walk a virtual mile in someone else’s shoes, and hopefully becoming more sensitive and caring along the way.

An early project was a virtual diversity training program for Cisco, where you saw yourself as a person of color in a virtual mirror. Your body movements were in sync, and you psychologically became, and developed innate empathy for the virtual actor you see.

Neuroscientists call this experience body transfer.

Next, you experienced a series of traumatic, high-impact events (schoolyard discrimination, a heated interaction with the police and job interview) where you were discriminated against in the basis of race.

You identified as a minority, experienced trauma and felt it viscerally.

Most diversity trainings use storytelling to transfer information. They teach you rules and facts. You don’t experience them. You don’t feel them.

In VR, training becomes less about information transfer, and more about a sort of experiential, cognitive therapy.  The entire VR course lasted about 10-minutes and was designed to get people to be more empathetic.

They’ve since completed another 10-minute VR journey to try and establish better empathy for homelessness which lets participants experience how someone becomes homeless. You start out having a home, the local economy tanks, you lose your job, sell your stuff, get evicted, can’t afford a place to live, try sleeping in your car, get hassled by the cops and so on.

I posted the trailer here so give it a quick look. It’s pretty scary.

But can 10-minutes really teach lasting behavioral change? Are these traumatic experiences enough to change our instincts? And can it really teach someone what it feels like to endure a life of racial discrimination or sexual harassment?

Jeremy accepts that VR may not be a magic bullet. But when it comes to scientific issues that have been politicized, like climate change, he believes the novel, experiential, fun factor of VR can be leveraged to help better educate people who may have been previously impervious to appreciate thicker, more complex problems.

Their 7-minute VR Ocean Acidification Experience explains how increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets absorbed by the oceans and harms sea life. Is important a topic as this may be, it’s tough to get people to pay attention to these types of issues.  But the novelty of VR produced long lines of people who waited as long as an hour to see this short VR experience during the Tribeca Film Festival.

Other applications VHIL has completed include VR pattern recognition training for football quarterbacks and safety training for thousands Walmart employees.

Interestingly enough, one of the challenges Jeremy cites is the loss of control with respect to focus in a 360 environment.  Unlike narrative cinema, no one has figured out an elegant way to control where the participant looks in a VR environment, since it;s up to the participant, not the cinematographer to figure out what you see. “VR is anarchy. Film is fascism,” says Jeremy.

When he and his team figures out how effectively add scent to VR experiences, you could be eating a veggie burger that tastes like beef. Imagine how that might impact our planet, given that livestock agriculture accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Or how it might help us fight obesity.

Thinking about how biographers describe character shaping moments in the lives of successful, influential people, I could see parents paying big bucks to impress virtual peak experiences upon their children to position them for success.

What defining events from the lives of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Abraham Lincoln led to their development and could they be recreated as VR to leave a lasting impression of their sought after character traits on young children at a tender, impressionable age?

Media formats have a way of etching themselves into our memory and staying with us for a very long time. We remember the lyrics from songs and lines from movies we haven’t heard or seen in decades. In fact, even retirement homes are using music to increase mental capacity for seniors.

Could VR be the format by which we engineer peak experiences that stay with and transport us to an euphoric mental state. Could it be the path to self-actualization?

What do you think?  Is the future of VR entertainment or a will virtual reality become a key channel for social gain?

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