Using VR as a Force for Social Good

How artists are using virtual reality to make a difference.

Twenty-year old Southern California filmmaker, composer, and virtual reality artist, Kayla Briët’s recent project is like “Night at the Museum” in real life — but a virtual one. Kayla is a Sundance Ignite Fellow, who was invited to be a part of ‘Ae Kai, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (SAPAC) Culture Lab. This is when she decided to create “Trove” — a VR exhibit. Kayla describes “Trove” as a ”whimsical diary room” that brings a person’s most treasured objects — like a favorite stuffed animal or a trinket given by your best friend — into a virtual room using photogrammetry — a 3D modeling technique. Visitors can pick up the objects, and hear the stories of what they meant to their owners.

One artifact in Kayla’s exhibit is a unique bell Robert Wada found in Korea. He promised his friend, Mary, whom he had known since they were children together in the same Japanese internment camp, that he would send her a bell for her collection when he left for the Korean War in the 1950s. Mary treasured it until she passed away in 2010 and the vivid memories behind the object still bring tears to Robert.

“It’s like going to a very personal museum, and being able to interact one-on-one with each object,” says Kayla. “My goal with this project was to create a moment to reflect on the memories that matter most in our own lives by giving people access to objects that would otherwise be lost, forgotten, or packed away. In some cases, families have to leave things behind, and I want to be able to capture and preserve as many objects as I can in a different way, for generations to come. VR was a necessity to make this idea come to life — and it did.” The pre-alpha version of “Trove” premiered in July at SAPAC’s ‘Ae Kai conference in Waikiki.

Younger people, like Kayla, are quickly embracing VR, and finding good uses for it. About 40 percent of millennials says they are interested in a VR headset. Millennials make up 59 percent of the world’s population, and they will lead the way with AR/VR adoption. For a generation that consumes more TV, video games, and social media than any other, millennials are primed to be early adopters of this emerging form of media and entertainment.

But VR’s value for millennials and other generations doesn’t end with entertainment. It is quickly gaining a reputation as an empathy machine, helping to raise awareness, and further connect audiences to social causes. According to Adobe’s “The Future of Experience” report, VR is best used to “foster empathy and create meaningful experiences that have the potential to power social good.” Empathy effects change by offering virtual ways to explore culture and identity. It enables immersive experiences — like “Trove” does — that help overcome potential deficiencies, turn weaknesses into strengths, and provide an opportunity for greater understanding and unification.

To build stronger connections, brands, artists, and organizations — including advocacy groups and marketers — are exploring the medium for a variety of uses, from showcasing their corporate social impact work to creating virtual, mission-driven art installations, and raising awareness of the ramifications of negative behavior on others.

VR promotes change for the better

Lucy Bonner is a New York City-based designer who confronts social imbalance and bias through interactive design. The motivation behind her VR project was very personal — she needed an immediate, specific change. After moving to New York City to attend graduate school at Parsons School of Design, the daily catcalls and whistles she experienced felt intrusive and violating. Instead of confronting the perpetrators head on, however, Lucy took to her studio to create a VR experience that simulates street harassment, and the atmosphere of intimidation and tension it causes.

The result is an emotionally impactful VR experience titled “Compliment.” When viewing, the user’s reaction is usually immediate — and thought provoking.

“The moment anyone puts the headset on, and hears the first catcall from the virtual man walking towards them, they feel the forceful intrusion and violation of space and attention that makes a woman feel vulnerable, angry, and silenced,” Lucy says. “‘Compliment’ disrupts the dominant ‘compliment’ narrative with the (virtual) reality of harassment — and with this disruption, challenges participants to open their eyes to others’ experiences.”

The power of VR to parallel reality

After experimenting with physical interactive media installations, Lucy chose to work with VR because it offers an immersive experience to a wider audience, and gives users a more malleable sense of themselves than any physical installation could.

“I had never worked in 3D programs, much less virtual reality before, but I knew it had the potential to bring in the deeper, full-bodied feelings I wanted,” Lucy says. “Its visual and auditory components become all-encompassing without allowing for much response from the user, replicating the visceral sense of helplessness I, and others feel in response to the invasive and ever-present power play of street harassment.”

For Kayla, what she’s done with traditional film translates into what she does in VR. With traditional film, the frame is your canvas, and when you’re experiencing the story of the film, you’re actively projecting your imagination, as well as your own memories, onto the characters you see on the screen. When Kayla works in a 3D game engine, she is able to build a world from scratch, and play with scale, but the same focus on emotional projection remains.

“I’m very inspired by the power that film has to transport you, and activate your imagination and memories,” Kayla says. “That inspiration transfers over to what I create in VR — it’s a portal, or a time capsule where you can capture a certain emotion in time, and invite people into that world. But instead of recreating the real world — I’m building an alternate world that allows us to draw parallels to our own reality. That’s where I see the power in VR.”

An entry point for deeper conversations

Most of the people who visited “Trove” experienced this power for the first time, Kayla says. “Most people I exhibited this project to had never experienced VR before, so of course there was lots of mystery and excitement about the VR headset itself. But once they were in, people enjoyed being able to pick up, and interact with the objects in the experience, and hear the stories of each one. They would even be ashamed and embarrassed if they dropped something because they knew how much the objects meant to the owners. Before a visitor left, sometimes they would tell me a story of an item they treasured. I loved this kind of personal reflection — complete strangers, of all ages, sharing memories together.”

As for “Compliment,” Lucy continues to see the value — and change in perception — her VR project brings.

“Most women — and some men — take off the headset already nodding, identifying with the encounters, which tends to spark a conversation around their own experiences with harassment,” she says. “Though we each face our individual struggles with systemic power structures, communicating about experiences like harassment helps build and maintain the community of support that’s so essential to face those systems and call for change.”

Lucy sees varied response from men, although, generally, all have believed, “whether shocked, or sadly less-than-surprised. Some want to know if the lines were real, and shake their heads when I confirm that every harassment is one I have heard personally or from a friend’s traumatized anecdote,” Lucy adds. “Along with the abrasive and corrosive language of harassment, men who have interacted with “Compliment” are often surprised at the physical feelings it engenders. The size differential allowed by the digital environment gives larger men a completely new feeling around physical vulnerability and intimidation.”

Based on her experience with “Compliment,” Lucy sees a great potential for VR, not only as an art form and a tool for those working for change, but also as an entry point for deeper conversations. Along with the cool, new tech aspect of drawing more people to interact with the project, Lucy says that its immersive qualities provide a rich environment to work in.

Kayla agrees. “Every creator, every storyteller, has an opportunity to lay out a foundation and explore new things in mediums that haven’t been explored before. No one can say for certain how VR is going to impact our society, just like no one knew how much Facebook would impact society at large. That’s what makes creating in VR so exciting and important. Energy is being placed into creating blueprints for the future.”

Don’t be afraid to try out VR to help build stronger connections in new ways. Read more about creating empathy with VR or enjoy other stories in our “Beyond the Screen” collection.