Ready Citizen One

People stand in the middle of the street to get a just-right, artistic photo to post to their Instagram accounts. Pedestrians risk their lives texting on, staring at, and talking on their smartphones as they cross streets. A few weeks ago, I saw a concerned police officer stop to give a middle-aged pedestrian a stern warning for dangerously stepping off the sidewalk into traffic while deeply engrossed in the world of her smartphone

Social media permeate our daily lives more than ever before. The Pew Research Center’s recently-released study, Social Media Use in 2018, reveals that Facebook and YouTube dominate social media with 73% and 68% of those surveyed using these platforms, respectively. And frequency is increasing as well — — 51% visit Facebook several times a day.

Pew Research Center: “Social Media Use in 2018”

Back to our beloved smartphones: the number of users who access social media on there smartphones is significant. Indeed, the Pew data show the extent to which we are tethered to our devices: 74% of those surveyed indicated it would be “hard “ or “very hard” to give up their cell phones or smartphones, while only 56% said the same of TV.

74% of those surveyed indicated it would be “hard “ or “very hard” to give up their cell phones or smartphones, while only 56% said the same of TV.

However, the smartphone will soon give way to augmented reality (AR) devices, bringing a whole new level of fun, utility, distraction, and peril to our daily lives. Admittedly, there have been false starts…remember Google Glass, a favorite choice of neckbeards everywhere? But the trend toward AR is inevitable as both design and price points evolve to meet consumers’ finicky requirements.

Similarly, virtual reality (VR) devices (currently a fringe technology adopted mostly by tech geeks and gamers) will soon find their way under every Christmas tree and into every home. Social media companies already recognize that VR threatens their existing models: Facebook bought Oculus. Snapchat has Spectacles.

The 2018 movie, Ready Player One, based on the 2011 science fiction novel by Ernest Cline, presents a dystopian view of a world in 2044 dominated by VR. Most citizens in Cline’s futuristic world use VR to escape from the misery of their daily lives.

There is some reason to believe escapism drives a good portion of social media usage and that this behavior could spill into the VR world. But we can channel VR into a genuine force for good. By creating immersive experiences, VR can build empathy for those less fortunate. For example, by showing environments of people living in poverty or students attending crumbling schools badly in need of repair.

“Walking in another’s virtual shoes: Do 360-degree video news stories generate empathy in viewers?” by Dan Archer and Katharina Finger | Columbia University | March 15, 2018

In fact, Columbia University’s School of Journalism recently released a report on the effectiveness of VR as an empathy-building storytelling medium: their experimental research reveals that VR prompts a “higher empathetic response than static photo/text treatments and a higher likelihood of participants to take ‘political or social action’ after viewing.”

VR has the potential to motivate people in ways never before possible.

At Unearth, we already use social media to deliver engaging visual content such as photography, video and data visualization to drive action. But this is only the beginning. Imagine elected officials using VR to gain a more authentic understanding of the lives of their constituents. Or voters living in one isolated corner of a state stepping into their fellow citizens’ virtual shoes.

The spread of virtual reality won’t create a utopian world, but it is an eye-opening and thought-provoking medium that can help us improve the one we live in now.