Virtual Reality for Civic Deliberation
Building Empathy and Attunement through VR
Hello, I’m Audrey Tang. I’m very happy to be here, virtually, to talk about the work I’ve been doing throughout the year: using virtual reality for civic deliberation.
Deliberation — listening to each other deeply, thinking together and working out something that we can all live with — is magical.
In a high-quality deliberation, participants become immune to propaganda and misinformation, and feel a sense of deep connection long after the event.
Unfortunately, the magic of deliberation often excludes people who are physically absent.
In the past couple years, we have deployed tools for translation, facilitation, and transcription so that people can watch and participate in deliberations from afar.
Still, full face-to-face participation remains exclusive and often expensive.
What I’d like to share today is my personal experience with bringing some of the magic to virtual spaces, so that people can share the magic of deliberation without being in the same place at the same time.
To me, the primary psychological aspect of VR deliberation is a sense of awe.
My first personal exposure started this January. When the “Star Chart VR” application came out, I touched the Earth from space and meditated on it for a very long time.
That day just happened to be the day before our presidential election, with a lot social media propaganda and noise from all sides. But I was not affected at all — I was floating in space, looking at the Earth. It was sublime.
Afterwards, I read up on the phenomenon that I went through and brought it to the “night of ideas” in Paris to share this experience with fellow thinkers in the same event.
Without exception, everyone who tried it told me that it expands their imagination — this shared experience allowed us to think about global issues in a more holistic way.
At the “night of ideas,” I said the night reminds us we are among stars. Again, here in the night of democracy, it reminds us that we’re not in our own islands, but are in fact sharing the earth, among the stars.
The “overview effect” is not limited to issues at a global scale. There’s a wealth of literature suggesting that if we enter deliberations with a sense of wonder — through an overview of the globe, of the city, or of the neighborhood — we become more prosocial, less selfish, and much more capable to consider alternate positions and listen to each other.
After I returned to Taipei, I worked on improving this sense of wonder — not just watching from afar, but also exploring the ground.
Realities.io, a photorealistic VR platform introduced in April, offers exactly that: we start from space, approach the Earth, and zoom all the way into a building in Berlin.
Here we can look at the chair, explore the space, walk and teleport from place to place. We can even crouch down and look into the fine details, with a sense of wonder — knowing that this is not a fantasy land, it is a place that actually exists on Earth.
So, even though we haven’t physically been there, we still feel an emotional connection as we interact with the space and its contents.
Many deliberation topics are tied to a specific place, like an airport or a public building. If the site is small, we can walk around it with a deliberative tour. But if it’s too large, or too far in the future, VR may be the only practical way to build a scaffolding of the construction plan.
This gives us a sense of wonder that no blueprints or PowerPoint presentations can convey. Even children can enter this space, control it with their hands, and make tangible changes.
It’s like playing Minecraft — a simulation engine can take the changes, calculate how they affect traffic and pollution levels, and then project them back into the virtual reality space.
The gratification we feel through real-time simulations makes deliberation much more enjoyable, which brings us to the second psychological aspect of virtual reality.
When we meet other people through VR, this gives rise to the sense of autonomy. It’s the freedom to move across space and through time.
As a concrete example, I was visiting Madrid last week for the Collective Intelligence workshop. Before I visited Medialab-Prado, I led a telepresence robot workshop in September.
You can see here Yago and Pablo talking to my robotic form two weeks ago. The magic thing is that because people see me in the robotic body before I appear in the flesh, they are already attuned to what I have to say and I’m linked to what they’re doing, even while I was physically in Taipei.
Because the robot has a 360-degree camera, I can observe people’s feelings through their body movement in the auditorium, and I can get a sense of autonomy of going through the robot’s eyes and meeting people who may want to sit down and chat with my robot.
This experience is very interesting because it gives people relationships that are very similar to the relationships that we have in the flesh.
When I actually flew to Madrid afterwards, there was no disconnection — I felt like I was already in tune with the space, and people felt that they were already in tune with what I had to offer.
In addition to freedom to move through space, with some imagination, the sense of autonomy also works through time.
During September and October I held a series of lectures with students in HangZhou and Kaohsiung. Although I have never been to either classroom, I asked each class to model their classroom into the virtual reality space “High Fidelity”, created by the same person who made Second Life.
In “High Fidelity”, all our body movements can be projected onto this photorealistic model; movements are then recorded and can be replayed in the future.
Not only do I have an intuitive understanding of what the classroom is like and what my students are like sitting in those chairs, but our interactions and all the lectures can be recorded and replayed in different settings.
We set up portals: if you walk into the classroom’s pillar then you get into the Kaohsiung classroom. Again, while I haven’t been to that place in Kaohsiung, I learned about a lot of its surroundings and its history.
The students are working on a project to motion capture and record their local elders, asking them about their memories of what the spaces were like and what the spaces contained back in their youth.
Through virtual reality, not only can we observe the space how it was 30 years ago — when the elders were still young — but we can even wear their avatars and go through the same motions and feelings in a first-person view, just like what it was like to walk through the streets 30 years ago.
Those personal experiences of getting out of our bodies and reaching into other people’s perspectives gives us a much more deeper form of empathy than ever before.
Finally, in addition to awe and autonomy, we can also use VR to build assurance.
In virtual reality, because we can freely change acoustics and optics, we can build a safe place for people to listen to each other much more easily.
For example, we can make it such that sound does not become quieter over distance.
To give a concrete example, I gave an interview with primary and high school students when I was in Paris back in September.
When they asked me why I chose “High Fidelity” as the place to meet, I said, “Well, it’s very simple: if I had used the hotel Wi-Fi connections for video conferencing, it’s impossible to video conference with six people at once.”
It’s also very difficult in video conferencing to maintain everyone’s attention — people check their phones, get distracted by what was on the screen, etc.
In VR, there is no such distraction and I can transmit my photorealistic model to the students’ computers and they can transmit their models to my computer. As a result, we can make full use of the bandwidth by transmitting only the sound, the tunes, where we’re looking, and where our hands are. These are very simple numbers to transmit, so all bandwidth can be dedicated to the subtleties of acoustics.
Also, the kids are modeled in a way that is the same height as me. Afterwards, they said they didn’t feel like I was someone they had to look up to; rather I was like one of their peers, and they could talk to me freely on much more equal footing. Again, this is impossible to do in the flesh.
Therefore, I think VR allows us to design experiences that make it much more friendly for people of all sizes, languages, and cultures to interact without tension or pressure; rather, we can listen to each other more easily.
A final, rather comprehensive example is an interview that I gave with the Next TV channel.
In this interview, both the anchor, Chen Ya-lin, and I were photorealistic models. We started from the sky and descended; we walked about, held a long, deep conversation, and finally gave each other a hug.
When I was giving her a hug, I knew that I had her complete attention and she had mine; this is the kind of environment where the magic of VR truly and fully clicks — so much so that my brain registered it as real.
In this environment, we can bring up any web pages or interactive models that we want to discuss; in this environment, we can always revisit the experience and take a different perspective — she could take my perspective, or I could take hers.
More importantly, this is the space for hugs and dances — violence is impossible. In this kind of atmosphere, in this kind of space, we knew we had the other person’s attention, and we made full use of that opportunity.
This is the kind of space that I would call a deliberative space.
To quickly recap:
- We discussed awe and how it’s a sense of wonder among stars and among the ground.
- We shared the idea of autonomy of space and in time.
- We talked about how virtual reality has built assurance — a safe space that makes children and adults talk on the same level and hug each other without fear.
To conclude my talk, I’d like to share a prayer that I had when I visited New Zealand after giving a virtual reality deliberation workshop. It goes like this:
When we see “internet of things”, let’s make it an internet of beings.
When we see “virtual reality”, let’s make it a shared reality.
When we see “machine learning”, let’s make it collaborative learning.
When we see “user experience”, let’s make it about human experience.
When we hear “the singularity is near”, let us remember: the Plurality is here.