Social justice and engineering collide at VR summit in Park City
November 14, 2018
In the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 3, residents in and around Ogden were startled by the sound of military helicopters buzzing their homes. The rotors of the Black Hawks and the wailing of sirens filled the streets as the Ogden Police Department and Army Special Operations elements conducted a nighttime urban warfare exercise.
After local backlash, the OPD and the city posted apologies to Facebook. Some commenters expressed their desire to hold the authorities accountable for what they saw as inadequate warning for a frightening experience near Hill Air Force Base. Others thanked the government for admitting to making a mistake, while others, still, defended the call not to warn residents.
The internet being the internet, though, the comments descended into mayhem.
At a session during last week's Virtual Identity Summit held at the Grand Summit Hotel, Brittan Heller, an expert on online discourse and harassment, fielded a question from an audience member about what happened in the comments following the Ogden incident and how to intervene effectively.
"Think about it like you're having that awkward Thanksgiving conversation with the relative you don't really want to talk to," Heller responded. "You can very politely say, 'I don't agree with you. I don't understand why you'd say something like that.'"
Heller's presentation focused on humanity more than tech, and while ostensibly it was hosted at an event catered to the virtual reality (VR) industry, it fit the tone of the rest of the conference, which was organized less as a trade show and more as a forum to address the fledgling technology's impact on humanity.
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Among those presenting in the various sessions were Heller, who currently leads a Harvard office researching online discourse, and Courtney Cogburn, an associate professor at Columbia University who presented her studies on VR and its applications in combating bigotry.
Making a dent
Science isn't going to fix racism, even with VR tech. But that's not the point, Cogburn said in a presentation of her findings from developing and studying a virtual empathy experience, a narrative that drops a viewer into someone else's perspective.
The point is to punch the viewer in the gut.
"This is really grounded in this belief that achieving racial justice requires that we understand racism (not) from intellectual exercise or even the consumption and production of science, but rather a visceral understanding that connects the spirit and the body as much as reason," she said.
She, along with a team of engineers and psychologists, has developed and studied reactions to "1,000 Cut Journey," a VR experience putting participants in the shoes of an African-American man named Michael Sterling in three pivotal moments of his life including playground interactions and experiencing police brutality.
While most of the audience at her talk could go through that experience with the ability to take the headset off and step out of Sterling's shoes, she said it's broadened viewers' understanding of what it's like to be black, relating what she heard from one subject, a white woman living in London who received a push notification about an incident of police violence.
"Before, her reaction was academic; it was a little bit removed as an abstract notion," Cogburn said. "And now that she had been on her knees with her hands up for no reason, she was reading that story in a different way."
Afterward, Cogburn stressed that, going forward, sociologists and psychologists need to have as much of a hand in developing tech as programmers and coders. She said she's encouraged by recent developments among existing giants like Facebook, which control much of today's information flow.
"I think it's important to have people who don't understand the tech at these tables, at these events, at these meetings, so they can be a part of the conversation on how this is going to be integrated into society," she said. "We all have a limited scope of understanding, and we need to have multiple scopes."
Cogburn exhibited "1,000 Cut Journey" at the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York this year, and she said she has submitted applications to exhibit her work at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.
Berk Frei and Matt Wilburn, two leaders at Morph 3D, the Salt Lake City-based VR tech firm that hosted the summit, say they hope they've played a part in helping to foster a responsible development path for VR, which they view as similar in magnitude to social media as a transcendent medium.
"I hope that we have inspired and will continue to provoke people to think a little more deeply about these issues," Frei said.
Heller struck a hopeful note after her talk. Even as a minority of trolls infest — and sometimes dominate — online discourse and the social media networks that have become ubiquitous, she sees a future where users' humanity becomes more apparent at each end of the fiber-optic cable as VR becomes more widespread.
"I firmly believe nobody is unreachable," she said.