Last week I stood on a beach with Björk

Reflections exploring the promise and perils of virtual reality, what it might mean for empathy and the ethics of working with and understanding others

I’m on a rocky, windy beach, a lighthouse to my East. In front of me stands Bjork. She wears a lime green gown that billows around her as she walks around me, singing to the music in the background. Moments later I’m back in a dark room in Somerset house, on a swivelling chair, headphones and goggles on my head.

This was Bjork Digital. Ending last week, it guided viewers through four virtual reality (VR) videos where some of its possibilities were explored: from experiencing a desolate seaside landscape, to the inside of a human body and the sensation of walking amongst other, virtual bodies.

Bjork’s four videos evoked the breadth of what VR could become ; from its potential to address mental health to its ability to entrench internet addicts to their online avatars.

Close enough to show the promise of the medium, but sufficiently far away from entirely removing the grounding of this physical world, Bjork’s four videos evoked the breadth of what VR could become (for a review of the videos themselves, see here); from its potential to address mental health to its ability to entrench internet addicts to their online avatars. The projections are nothing new, but the first hand experience and emerging examples of VR’s application bring them starkly to light.

In some moments VR is elating. Immediately transported to the rugged beach, I saw how VR can quickly evoke a depth of feeling, a visceral, personal, experience that can shape understanding and knowing more powerfully than other media. Combining full immersion, a gaze that you direct, and content that brings you into others’ worlds as if it were your own, learning becomes experiential - a far cry from the abstract lecture hall or traditional textbook.

Recent examples of this potential include the United Nations VR Lab, this summer appointingdesigner Nelly Ben Hayoun to support their effort to raise awareness - amongst funders, the public and in schools - around the world’s humanitarian crises. A UNICEF fundraising programme found that one in six people, twice the normal rate, pledged donations after watching Clouds over Sidra. In March this year, Doctors without Borders announced the use of 3D printing and VR to design hospitals to improve patient care. The New York Times has experimented with VR in its reporting. Google Cardboard brings this potential for storytelling to anyone with a smartphone; the Expeditions project is specifically designed for teachers to “take students on immersive, virtual journeys”. Aside from its philosophical implications, this is VR as a tool for empathy and education.

In other moments VR is entirely isolating. On the beach, I couldn’t turn to others and see their reactions to the same scenes we both saw, nor hear their expressions of joy or delight, shock or surprise. VR is also disembodying. Watching a digital body of Bjork composed of sparks walking alongside me, gradually growing to beyond life-sized, I was sharply aware of the lack of coordinates for myself in that virtual space. Social codes dissolve. Bjork just a metre away, with one step I could traverse through her body.

So as much as VR can help us learn about others or even ourselves, I felt how it could be a platform that turns us inwards. Design guidelines and principles exist to support new VR work, like Google’s Cardboard Design Lab and the website The UX of VR. But these leave out the ethics and morals that will inevitably be embedded in every new experience made.

While the technology advances, these ethical and moral questions remain. During my time in Bjork’s digital universe, they resounded in my mind. How might more VR games connect and not distance people from one another? How might immersions enable long-term action and agency, rather than momentary feelings of compassion that don’t extend beyond the digital space? How could VR lead to more nuanced understandings about bodies, and not potentially dissociate ourselves from our own? How can it be used to encourage health, and not inadvertently promote lethargy, isolation and loneliness? How can VR be swayed towards social good? And as researchers, ethnographers and designers, how might VR become a tool to understand the everyday lives of diverse communities, to prototype new services, products or experiences, and to communicate them to others?

A recent paper, published earlier this year by researchers Michael Madary and Thomas K. Metzinger from Johannes Gutenberg University, begins to explore these tensions and lay out the ethical foundations for VR. Much as Kate Crawford and Ryan Calo’s call for a social-systems analysis to AI research, so too does VR demand the same level of holistic thinking. While the moral principles within which VR operates are unchanged, the pace of change, and the impacts on how we see ourselves, others and our position in the world so unclear, the level of consideration here is more urgent than ever. 

Mindset reminders:

  • The breadth of what VR could become spans the potential to address mental health and develop empathy, to further entrenching isolation and loneliness.

  • Design guidelines exist for VR but they leave out the ethics that will inevitably be embedded in every new experience made. 

  • A recent paper begins to lay out the ethical foundations for VR, with the technology calling for holistic thinking and social-systems analysis.

ImagesBjörk Digital review – to virtual reality and beyondThe Guardian

Emilie Glazer