Auschwitz, sex assault and police shootings — where virtual reality is going next
By Elizabeth Dwoskin, Michael Alison Chandler and Brian Fung
Nov 11 2016
The fundraiser invitation promised a night of “Cocktails and Virtual Reality.” More than 40 people crowded into a Washington rowhouse, sipping mixed drinks in Mason jars before settling into folding chairs and adjusting the focus on their Oculus Rift goggles.
For eight minutes, they traversed through a squalid camp that sprawled out in every direction. It has become home to about 120,000 Rohingya Muslims in Burma who fled violence from Buddhist mobs four years ago.
Flora Lerenman, an elementary school teacher, said she had read articles about the plight of the Rohingya, but after watching the film she felt much closer to their struggle.
“I was right there,” she said. “We were standing beneath the same sky.”
Over the past two years, technology giants and Hollywood have poured millions of dollars into virtual reality in the hope that the medium will transform gaming and entertainment. But a growing crop of filmmakers, policymakers, researchers, human rights workers and even some law enforcement officials see a broader societal purpose in the emerging medium’s stunning ability to make people feel as if they have experienced an event firsthand.
These advocates cite research that shows virtual reality can push the boundaries of empathy and influence decision-making about issues ranging from policing to the environment. But they’re also facing new questions about the unintended consequences of an early-stage technology that may doing harm to users by putting them in situations that seem all too real.
This summer, a 15-person film crew flew to the concentration camps of Auschwitz and Majdanek to record the horrors of the Holocaust in virtual reality as part of an effort to preserve the memory of the atrocity for future generations. They filmed a scene in which viewers who don a VR headset can enter a gas chamber, escorted by a three-dimensional hologram of a living survivor.
“We don’t actually know whether it’s this empathy machine or whether, if you have an immersive experience, you traumatize your users,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of the Shoah Foundation at the University of Southern California, which is creating the Holocaust simulations in partnership with virtual reality start-ups. “There’s also a danger that when you have so many extreme experiences, that you become desensitized.”
Using simulations and role-playing to foster understanding is hardly a new idea. But new research shows that full virtual-reality immersion, in which a person wearing a headset can be transported instantly to a gunfight on a New York street corner, witness the gruesome crossfire of the Syrian civil war, or experience what it’s like to suffer from dementia, places a unique stamp on the brain that is distinct from watching a movie or reading a book.
“We’re showing that parts of the brain that light up [when a person has a real-life experience] also light up when one has the same experience in virtual reality,” said Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. “That allows for this process of perspective-taking, which is kind of hard to do for most people.”