Skewed Perceptions on a Virtual Landscape
An interesting piece written by Abe Streep was recently featured on Wired. The piece, titled “One Startup’s Quest to Save Refugees with Virtual Reality” provides a window into VR’s usage in the realm of charity and non-profit organizations. Using this as a basis, it comments on several of the broader questions regarding general usage of Virtual Reality.
Off the bat, this exposé draws the reader in with a drop cap into the middle of an ongoing story about boats arriving at port. This technique, commonly known in films as a cold open, has the effect of immediately immersing the reader in the story Streep is telling. The scene is set using heavy description, which provides a backdrop to frame David Darg as its protagonist. As a reader finishes this section, their eye is immediately drawn to a pull quote.
“A lot of people will make a very cool, very expensive VR experience that very few people will see.”
This quote casts an air of skepticism around Darg’s use of VR even before the author has defined that use. This is a reoccurring theme in other drop quotes throughout the article. The author goes on to explain that through Virtual Reality, Darg intends to use his company, Ryot, to “create a new form of short, impactful storytelling to buoy the humanitarian industry.” After a brief summation of this company and its founder’s position in the industry, Streep returns to the setting that this piece was initially framed in. Streep continually revisits the bleak situation that Darg is set in, using rich and detailed descriptions alongside several fullscreen images. This technique attempts to maintain the attention and interest of his readers by immersing them in context of Streep’s writing.
After a description of how VR has helped raise empathy and donations at fund-raising events, Streep shifts gears to examine the drawbacks of this medium. He casts skepticism on the ability of VR to tell a powerful story due to to a lack of visual hierarchy which according to Darg results in a “loss of artistry.” Even as the narrative shifts to discuss the benefits of VR, another quote appears to pull our attention away from these benefits.
The VR-as-panacea narrative may be overcooked. The majority of studies have shown VR to cause just moderate increases in empathy.
Despite the fact that VR as a medium has been shown to cause increases in empathy over other mediums, this quote suggests that a moderate increase simply isn’t effective enough. When confronted by a suggestion that news be a multimodal collaboration that includes VR, Streep dismisses this concept as ‘virtual spaghetti thrown at a moving wall’. Through Streep’s consistent emphasis, a clear agenda for the article emerges: to cast suspicion on the use of VR.
Streep, as a journalist, appears threatened by the use of VR as a medium for journalism. Although he presents arguements for and against VR, Streep’s personal voice reveals his underlying bias. The suggestion that VR is a ‘replacement’ for the written word is seen as an infringement on his territory. As a response, his article is intentionally written in an immersive style to prove that written journalism can be just as immersive as VR. The result is quite impressive. As a computer scientist working in the field of Virtual Reality, I have a different set of biases, that are informed by my understanding of this technology.
Virtual Reality is an incredible creative domain that remains mostly unmapped. Many have tried to venture into this domain in the past, only to encounter significant technical or monetary difficulties. Virtual Reality was created in a rudimentary form during the 1950’s and 60’s. In the decades since, many researchers have built on previous technology to create new groundbreaking achievements in the field. Ours is not the only VR revolution in history, nor will it be the last. It is only gradual improvements in technology have recently brought VR to the verge of being massively accessible. Many companies are planning ahead for this new frontier, attempting to predict its trajectory as the technical difficulties and associated costs continue to be overcome. VR as a medium is a two sided coin in which content and hardware are irrevocably intertwined. Ryot has chosen to explore a hardware path in which the users are silent observers. In the the virtual experiences they create, user are able to view their environment in a 360-degree space, but are unable to interact with it. Such an approach reduces many difficulties in accessibility and still provides a moderate increase in empathy as opposed to traditional mediums, which makes it ideal for reaching and touching the hearts of a large number of people. What this approach gains in accessibility it loses in immersion.
Many will look at the early companies of the current VR surge and, finding fault in the companies, question the methods and merit of the technology itself. Few take the time to truly examine the technology behind these companies and see their short sighted plans. In a rush to be the first to hit the VR landscape, many companies use unstable or temporary technology. These short term solutions often do not take into account the end game of Virtual Reality. There is still much to learn and more to develop in the sphere of Augmented and Virtual Reality. If we assume that Virtual Reality rides solely on the backs of these rushed companies, then our expectations will crash along with them. There have been multiple waves of excitement about Virtual Reality in the past that fizzled under the constraints of technology. We must be patient and prepare for the long term rather than place all of our expectations on the early flares of fast burning flames.