Could Virtual Reality Help with Multicultural Understanding?

Photo courtesy of Pixvana
Photos courtesy of Pixvana

I recently had the privilege of attending the event “Becoming: An Intimate Conversation with Michelle Obama,” moderated by actress Reese Witherspoon. As Ms. Obama shared her story about growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the state of Illinois, progressing through her career in law and public service and eventually becoming the First Lady of the United States, she said something I will never forget: “It’s harder to hate up close.”

But as our world has supposedly become smaller through global internet connections, we’ve also experienced incredible division and an ugly surge of hatred throughout.

Why is this?

For many of us, there is a growing awareness that in the digital age, there is no substitute for direct, face-to-face human connection. Yes, video chatting has made it possible to keep in touch and see friends and family on a screen in real time, but this isn’t the same as a warm embrace, a shared meal, or an opened door. And as much as we’ve expanded our awareness of the lives of strangers from around the world through things such as social media and online gaming, we also know we are being deceived by bots, anonymous posts and fake profiles.

What if there were a way to feel like you were truly walking in someone else’s shoes? What if you could stroll along the streets of their hometown, sit at a table across from their family members and hear the rhythms of their daily life? Moreover, what if you could do this without ever leaving your house?

With the ever-expanding world of extended reality (XR), we may soon find out. In fact, you may already be using XR. This can include virtual reality (VR) headsets that immerse you in a 360-degree deep-sea diving expedition, augmented reality (AR) apps that can overlay an IKEA desk in your home office or a Pokemon character at the bus stop and even mixed reality (MR) devices that allow you jot down a grocery list item on a digital sticky note, virtually place it on your real refrigerator, and then go fight a dragon down your hallway just for fun.

We already know that through XR we can trigger the thrill of a skydive, the fear of a military training and even the novelty of a virtual new hairstyle. But, as XR becomes more widely available, how can we use it to experience deeper emotions such as joy, compassion and empathy? For example, could a white, middle-class, able-bodied man in the American Midwest virtually experience life as a Sudanese teenage girl living in a refugee camp? Or, instead of just watching the evening news, as if it were a fictional movie, could you put on a VR headset and virtually narrowly escape the latest earthquake in Indonesia while trying to assist actual victims?

Dr. Stefano Triberti, Ph.D., a psychologist and post-doc researcher at the University of Milan in Italy, believes XR holds great potential for deepening human understanding. In his recent article, “Mixed Reality for Cross-Cultural Integration: Using Positive Technology to Share Experiences and Promote Communication,” published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, Triberti and his colleagues present their opinions on the potential for Mixed Reality to be used as a tool to help new immigrants struggling to negotiate their physical, psychological and emotional lives in a new country.

“When [you have] to move to another country, for whatever reason, you arrive lacking the scenarios and experiences from the place you are coming from, and it is difficult to share them with others,” says Triberti. “It is difficult to show them you have different, but perhaps similar, experiences from an emotional point of view. But, in theory, you could use images from your country and superimpose them onto your current location [using XR].”

What makes XR so different from watching a scene on a traditional flat screen, explains Beverly Vessella, who runs product at Seattle-based Pixvana, Inc., is the immersive nature of the experience. “When you have a 360-degree experience, you are the protagonist in the story,” she says. “As a creator, you can’t hide behind the camera or edit what you see by choosing where you point the lens.” Beverly goes on to explain how her company is using XR primarily as a medium for creating enhanced experiences that can capture hearts and minds, whether for enterprise training in difficult skills or for seeing through another’s eyes.

Beverly, herself, has many fascinating and heartfelt stories to tell. Her parents emigrated to U.S. city of San Francisco, California from Hong Kong before she was born. Her first language was Cantonese, and she appreciates the way her parents instilled Chinese values such as honor, respect and high-achievement throughout her upbringing. Today, living in Seattle with her husband and young daughter, she uses technology —  including VR —  to maintain a sense of closeness with her parents. “I once shot a VR video of my daughter. She toddled towards the camera positioned at eye-level and looked into it with curiosity and wonder. When I showed it to my parents, I could tell it touched them deeply —  they could see the world from her perspective. It’s a much more intimate experience [than flat-screen video].”

Beverly and Tom

Beverly and her husband Tom, a principal product manager for Amazon Alexa, are both deeply immersed in technology through their professions; however, she explains, “I am not going to put my daughter in a headset anytime soon.” At home, Beverly and Tom live a decidedly low-tech life, each describing themselves as private and outdoorsy. Their daughter mostly plays with wooden toys, board books and the family schnauzer. As much as Beverly and Tom love their high-tech jobs, they both understand the dangers of replacing face time with screen time. “Life is human beings,” Beverly says. “The imperfection and struggles of life is what makes it great.”

Perhaps it’s this  —  being vulnerable to our struggles and imperfections  — that is so often lost in the online space. With the anonymity of the internet, we can represent ourselves as whatever and whoever we want. We can gloss over what makes us vulnerable and handpick the parts of ourselves we want to share. At the same time, we can also pick others apart under the guise of a username or avatar. The internet has no way of holding us accountable.

So, as another wave of new technologies becomes available to the average user, will we use it to learn about others and deepen our sense of empathy and belonging, or will we simply use it as another vehicle for self-promotion and comparison? Or, perhaps we’ll be surprised to find our true selves in the abyss of a virtual space. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”


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