Virtual reality across cultures: can virtual reality help to think about our digital future?

This summer the Design Across Cultures programme of the Digital Society School launched the first virtual reality summer school across cultures. Together with the Play and Civic Media department, the VR Base and a consortium of international partners (Hanyang University, NYC Medialab and Kyoto Sangyo University), we wanted to explore how to use creative and innovative storytelling technique like virtual reality to think about the digital society from a cross-cultural perspective.

Over a period of three weeks, four multidisciplinary teams across the world worked together to translate a fragment of the dystopian Dutch novel, Slaap Zacht Johnny Idaho (Sleep Tight Johnny Idaho) by the Dutch author Auke Hulst into a virtual reality experience.

With this innovative project, we aimed to challenge participants to think about the impact of digital technology on our personal lives and in society through a virtual reality experience. The increased use of virtual reality holds the potential to form new, experiential and immersive opportunities, and creates new and exciting ways to visualise and reflect on these issues.

Amsterdam team in the concepting phase.

Amsterdam, Kyoto, New York and Seoul

In order to create a working VR prototype in less than three weeks, you need a multidisciplinary team. When selecting team members we looked for a good mix of participants with skills in design, Unity programming, scenario writing, and 3D modeling. Like other summer schools, participants worked on assignments, received coaching from teachers with a background in design and virtual reality, followed online lectures by experts in the field, and experimented with the newest VR technology provided by Acer. Participants designed concepts, chose their mechanics, tested prototypes, and eventually worked towards their own working prototype.

The Amsterdam team’s Scrum Board with role division and tasks to be done.

The uniqueness of the project, however, was that it involved four teams across the globe simultaneously working on the same project. A reason for setting up such a project was to develop a collaborative and co-creational approach, in which we contributed to Digital Society School’s mission to fight ‘design waste’, which refers to the throwing away of valuable work form the design process. One of our main interests was to get the four teams to collaborate, and share their insights and ideas. Teams were instructed to help each other in the design and coding process, and communicate, mainly electronically, for the duration of the project.

Because remoteness and dispersion of work were key characteristics of the project, the teams had to rely on digital technology for their communication. They shared weekly video vlogs between the teams, in which they recorded their progress, organised online hangouts and held virtual milestone check-in meetings, with the goal of sharing learnings and discussing progress. Slack, a cloud-based team collaboration tool, was used for everyday communication between teams and coaches and as a “virtual coffee machine” where information could be exchanged informally.

Amsterdam and Japan checking in with each other.

Cultural differences and silence

Despite the difficulty of the task, the summer school was an exceptional and amazing experience. Participants worked on creating an immersive VR experience, experimenting with Mixed Reality devices sponsored by Acer. They solved problems as a team: sharing their interdisciplinary skills and expertise, evaluating each other’s ideas and enhancing understanding to achieve a shared purpose. They also managed to exchange ideas across locations and incorporate each other ideas and game assets to some degree into their prototype.

Naturally, there were some learning points. Participants, for example, struggled with long-distance communication. All kinds of unexpected issues and problems arose along the way: time zones interfered with finding suitable moments for exchange, internet connections failed, there were freeze frames at crucial moments, and a typhoon kept the Kyoto team away temporarily from their joint working space.

The set-up of the team in Japan at Kyoto Sangyo University.

Another challenge was dealing with cultural differences throughout the process, especially with regards to expectations about sharing and communicating about the process. During the project, participants often expected others to be available for communication about the project, but instead they remained silent. This silence was most clearly manifested when Korean and Japanese participants did not respond to the messages sent to them by their co-participants in Amsterdam. Dutch participants mentioned how their inquiries remained unexplained, and pointed to the absence of activity on Slack or non-responsiveness in online hangouts.

In contrast, the Korean and Japanese teams mentioned that they didn’t always know what to say or communicate because is wasn’t fully clear to them what needed to be shared, and that they generally listen more than they talk. Team NYC didn’t want to bother other teams and the coaches with questions, and often decided to figure out a solution when the ran into a problem by themselves.

Team Korea at Hanyang Univeristy trying out their VR prototype

Such cultural differences are magnified in the digital environment. More than in face-to-face interactions, cues are missing to check intentions and make correct judgements. In a typical teleconference one easily misses the nuance of people’s bodily language, and behaviours are open to being interpreted in various ways. In our project, the silence of participants led to puzzlement: were they not responding because they did not speak enough English, were they showing respect or were they uncertain to express their views or insights, or were they simply not engaged enough? While this did not influence the achievement of the team’s goals, it did at times stand in the way of fostering discussion and made it more difficult to create a feeling of camaraderie across locations.

Kyoto team testing Acer Mixed Reality headset.

Dialogue on digital futures

At the closing of the summer school, each of the four teams presented a working VR prototype. Interestingly, all teams interpreted the book through their own lens. In Amsterdam, participants emphasised the neutral dimension of their virtual reality experience, leaving it up to the user to judge for themselves, while NYC Medialab team for instance focussed on privacy and surveillance issues that played a role in the book. Each of the experiences allowed us to see how different cultural contexts think about the impact of technology on society in 2030 in their own way.

The initiative to cross-culturally think about our digital future reflects many of the questions that are important in the growing learning community of the Digital Society School. Questions like:

How to successfully integrate digital technology in our lives and society today? How to digital transformation of society in a responsible and inclusive way?

The VR summer school showed that there are diverse ways to answer these questions. It makes us aware that there is cultural diversity in how we understand, evaluate and shape the integration of digital technology in society. If we recognise that sustainable ways of dealing with digital technology involve diverse approaches and perspectives, intercultural dialogue becomes vital. Dialogue amongst cultures prevents design waste and provides a deeper base of knowledge toward solutions of today’s societal problems. A dialogue is about collective thinking and inquiry, nicely summarised by Isaacs (1999) as ‘the art of thinking together’. This implies that participants recognise and respect differences, and are able to talk about them in constructive ways, both in face-to-face and online environments.

At our Design Across Cultures programme we provide a learning ground to develop these skills: a place where students and professionals can experiment with and learn from our unique multidisciplinary and cross-cultural projects. We believe that an important principle is that such learning should not simply be based on normative and wishful-thinking about working with other cultures. Instead, it should take real-life cross-cultural challenges and interactions as a starting point for learning, ensuring that people start to apply a cultural sensitivity to their actions when working with people of other cultures in any context.

The importance of intercultural learning has in the past perhaps not been fully utilised during the design process. We promote the significance of intercultural exchange and the power of approaching cultural difference as a design strategy. We hope to host many equally inspiring and cross-cultural design projects in the near future, and would love to continue the conversation and activities together with you.

We warmly welcome you to join a Design Across Cultures programme and help us think about how to use cultural difference as a design strategy.