Using virtual reality to explore and rewrite troubling social narratives.
The beauty of virtual reality is that it puts us in someone else’s shoes. In the world of entertainment, which has been driving the advance of VR, it allows us to pilot a spaceship, fulfill our intimate fantasies, or even walk with dinosaurs.
However, pioneers of the technology are also experimenting with VR to explore contemporary social issues. In a social and political milieu that often stresses our differences more than our shared human experiences, can VR help us better understand what it’s like to be another person?
Already, researchers around the world have launched several projects that test these waters. A few years ago, European team BeAnotherLab made headlines with its Gender Swap experiment. The project let participants swap perspectives using Oculus Rift headsets, first-person cameras, and synchronized movements. The mission statement: to show the relationship between the self and the Other as “part of a broader system called humanity.”
The YWCA project on consent
More recently, the YWCA in Montreal, Canada, launched a novel VR-based social project also premised on the idea of broadening social perspectives. Installed and presented in various public sites in the city, as well as in schools and colleges around Quebec, the project “Do you NO the limit?” invites participants to experience a scripted interaction between male and female college students, from the woman’s perspective. The project aims to educate the public, particularly youth between the ages of 16 and 24, about consent.
After donning Samsung Gear VR headsets powered by Oculus, participants find themselves in the living room of a male college student. What begins as playful flirtation eventually takes a dark turn and becomes distinctly uncomfortable.
Stephanie Coronado-Montoya, a project agent at the YWCA, says the experience is intended to stimulate public conversations about the meaning of consent: “By introducing this virtual reality project on consent, we hoped to offer our community an immersive experience that would prompt them to reflect further on what consent in sexual relations means.”
The experience is immersive and disconcerting at the same time. When the point-of-view character says she would like to wait before moving forward, her romantic interest resorts to various strategies of persuasion—including argument, flattery, and aggressive physical advances. But there is nuance in the script and character roles that permit full engagement.
Both characters make favorable first impressions, appearing as likable, down to earth, and humorous. These subtleties, Coronado-Montoya explains, are deliberate: “Consent in sexual relations is already a very multi-faceted concept, and we had to make sure our characters would appeal to a large and diverse audience. We wanted the scenario to be relatable and very realistic.”
The future potential of VR
The YWCA’s project hints at the limitless possibilities of virtual reality. In the future, there is no reason why we will not also be able to experience what it’s like to be of a different race, class, or even species. And with haptic technologies advancing rapidly, we will be able to not only see and hear, but also feel what it’s like to be someone else.
Of course, these will still be simulations. We bring to virtual realities our own individual psychologies, biologies, and cultural backgrounds. But until we can somehow beam one person’s experiences directly into another person’s mind, VR is what we have.
Coronado-Montoya has high hopes for VR in the future: “My experience on the ‘Do you NO the limit?’ project has led me to believe in the high potential of VR when it comes to raising awareness on sensitive issues such as gender inequality, gender violence, and poverty. This technology really allows you to place the viewer in another character’s shoes and to see the world from their perspective, which lends itself really well to projects seeking to raise awareness on poorly understood social issues.”
Besides entertainment, VR also has vast potential as a medium for social experimentation and education—permitting us a brief glimpse into the world of another.
Image sources: YWCA Montreal, Lorraine D. Sisto