Once confined to the realm of science fiction, virtual reality (VR) has now emerged as another showpiece of technological development. With the manufacturing of all kinds of VR devices by Sony PlayStation, Samsung, HTC and Facebook’s Oculus, among others, the race towards virtual perfection is on and the technology is carving its way into mainstream culture. Beyond pure entertainment, VR’s immersive capabilities present us with worthwhile applications to tackle pressing societal and even global issues.
There are various sorts of virtual reality, but generally, when speaking of VR, we refer to some kind of artificial, computer-generated environment. Most computer-based virtual simulations appeal to two senses: sight and sound. The simplest form is a 3D image, which appears to be in the same room as the user. There are, however, more sophisticated iterations, such as display screens that are completely wrapped around a person’s line of sight, rooms that are augmented with wearable computers or even devices that simulate touch sensation, letting users ‘feel’ displayed images.
Although VR, or in any case the notion of VR, has been around for a while, recent technological advances have seen the VR experience improve dramatically, encouraging renowned companies to invest in the technology. This drives prices down and could make it affordable for the public. It has been branded as the next big thing for some time, but now Tech M&A advisory firm Digi-Capital estimates that the virtual reality market will grow to 30 billion USD by 2020.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg bought the VR company Oculus in 2014 for the staggering amount of 2 billion USD. Stating that he would initially market the Oculus Rift headsets as gaming devices, he also acknowledges other applications and plans to expand Oculus Rift’s capacities so that users would also be able to attend virtual events, take classes or visit faraway places.
Despite the majority of efforts being directed towards gaming and entertaining purposes, this technology has much more to offer, not in the least the possibility to support social and environmental movements. VR offers the possibility to let people experience all kinds of situations in a very vivid way achieving a level of interaction that reading an article or watching a documentary cannot. Furthermore, it takes away spatial limitations, allowing people to face problems which are often not noticeable in their immediate surroundings and to help solve them from a distance.
An Eye on Health Training
Although many applications are still in testing phase, studies have already shown that VR shows great promise for people with mental or physical health issues, for instance during therapy sessions or clinical surgeries, but also health campaigns and medical training.
VR allows medical staff and medicine students to learn new skills or refresh existing ones in a safe environment. They are allowed to make mistakes –and can learn from them– since there is no risk of harming patients. One such training application is NeuroVR, one of the world’s most advanced VR neurosurgery simulators. Normally, surgeons-in-training face time restrictions in acquiring technical skills, so it takes time before they are fit to operate on patients. With NeuroVR, however, students can start practicing earlier. It simulates brain tissue, blood vessels and tumors, as well as sounds and tactile feedback. This gives surgeons the chance to keep improving their skills and provides students with more opportunity and time to master techniques, before actually operating on a person.
The non-profit organisation HelpMeSee makes use of VR to treat cataract blindness, the leading cause of blindness, particularly in developing countries. That is why HelpMeSee set out to train in-country specialists in an effective procedure called Manual Small Incision Cataract Surgery (MSICS). The training takes around 400 to 700 hours, of which 60 per cent is spent on an innovative MSICS VR surgical simulator, which recreates the human eye in all its visual and tactile details. Due to this simulator the surgical training is sped up dramatically, without endangering patients and might eventually provide a sustainable solution to eliminate cataract blindness.
VR also opens up possibilities to facilitate robotic and remote surgery. Robotic surgery is surgery performed using a robotic device, e.g. robotic arm, which often operates more accurately, resulting in fewer risks of complications during surgery and a faster procedure. Remote surgery, also called remote telesurgery, refers to the phenomenon when the surgeon is operating on a patient while being in a different location.
An example of the latter is a shoulder replacement surgery, which was conducted by two doctors: Dr. Ponce and Dr. Dantuluri. While Ponce was physically operating on the patient in Birmingham, Dantuluri was sitting at his desk in Atlanta. To facilitate this cooperation, the doctors combined Google Glass and VIPAAR (Virtual Interactive Presence in Augmented Reality) technology. This allowed Dantuluri to see exactly what Ponce saw in the operating room. Dantuluri, then, introduced his own hands or instruments into a virtual surgical field, which was, in turn, observable in Ponce’s Google Glass display, along with his own field of view, as a merged-reality environment. Watching Ponce perform the surgery, Dantuluri was assisting and giving advice throughout the procedure, as if he was there in person. Such cooperations could prove very useful in regions that lack medical staff or expertise. External specialists could cooperate with local surgeons and necessary interventions could be carried out nonetheless.
VR also seems to have a positive effect on veterans’ suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder as well as people struggling with severe depression.
Campaigning and Civic Engagement
Traditionally, activists and charity workers rely on news coverage, fundraising campaigns or even support from celebrities in order to highlight the issues they want to tackle. Socially-aware filmmakers, however, have recognised how VR can be an immense facilitator to influence both citizens and decision makers. By dropping them into certain precarious living circumstances, these filmmakers hope to convince individuals into changing policy or donating resources, to start taking action and back a certain cause.
One such VR project is Clouds Over Sidra (video below). This VR film was created for the UN and follows the daily routine of a 12 year old girl called Sidra, who lives in the Za’atari camp in Jordan – home to 84,000 Syrian refugees. Syrian civil war has already turned more than 4 million people into refugees. Therefore, the film has been strategically rolled out with impact in mind, bringing it to meetings where policy makers, philanthropists and big donors are gathered, such as the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria, held in Kuwait in March 2015, where the film helped boost fundraising efforts from the projected 2,3 billion USD to 3,8 billion USD.
In order to spread Clouds Over Sidra to the people, the film makers partnered up with UNICEF, translating it in 15 languages and going onto the streets in 40 countries with Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear headsets to show it. According to the New Zealand communications director for UNICEF, one out of six people who saw the film donated, which is twice the normal rate. Moreover, many people made monthly commitments instead of a singular donation.
The organisation Charity: Water also acknowledged the power of emotional immediacy. Since people often do not know what happened with their donations after donating, Charity: Water came up with the VR film The Source. In a before- and-after look the film shows how donors’ money is invested in clean water wells. Whereas the film’s protagonist Selam used to go about her day collecting leech-infected water from a reservoir she shared with the town’s animals, we see how the organisations’ drilling crew hits water and provides the girl and her community with clean drinking water for the first time. The film resulted in unexpected amounts of money, given by new and past donors, and hopes to keep persuading people to help reduce the number of people without access to clean drinking sources, which, according to WHO, is still 663 million.
Other examples of using VR to translate empathy to action programmes include the VR film Project Syria, which puts you in the middle of a terrorist bombing in Syria; Hunger in Los Angeles, recreating real, worrisome events that took place in front of an LA food bank; or the Nepal Quake Project, which documents the catastrophic events of the Nepal earthquake that occurred in April 2015. All these projects are set up to evoke feelings of empathy, to sympathise with people affected and it is to VR’s merit that it succeeds in making these issues more tangible than ever before.
Environmental Awareness through Immersive Tech
Similar to matters such as civil wars and widespread lack of potable water, environmental issues are perceived by many as phenomena that either do not affect them or that they can’t help address. Some politicians remain sceptical about global warming and many people are completely unaware about how their ecological footprint is contributing to problems that might escalate in the future. It is, however, not easy to show individual people how the ocean is filling up with plastic, how forests are disappearing, how polar ice caps are melting or how species face extinction. Very few people have first-hand experience with environmental issues.
Since it is not convenient to bring people to the polar caps, the media company RYOT decided to use VR to bring people face-to-face in a very direct way with the rapidly-melting glaciers in Alaska, so they can witness for themselves how quickly this is progressing. RYOT states that 26 million people have already been displaced due to climate change, and 150 million more will join those numbers by 2050. Moreover, it is humankind that is to blame for roughly 69 per cent of the ice loss since 1991, mostly because of excessive burning of fossil fuels. By providing people with this information and making these realities as palpable as possible, without actually travelling to the ice caps and glaciers, RYOT hopes to persuade people to cut down on carbon dioxide emissions. You can check out a video of the RYOT project below and click on the arrows in the top right corner to navigate through each scene:
Stanford University scientists have gone even further. Not only do they show people how emissions are affecting the environment, they actually turn people into a coral, using a VR simulation. Initially, you become a pink coral among sea urchins, sea bream and sea snails. By the end of the simulation, however, you fast forward to the end of this century, and experience how colourful species have been replaced by slimy green algae, due to ocean acidification, a process by which the ocean becomes more acidic as it sucks up the carbon dioxide we spew into the atmosphere. A study concerning this project found out that subjects in the virtual reality group demonstrated more empathy for the environment than those who watched a movie about acidification. The key is then turning that heightened empathy into action.
Virtual Reality for Education
VR is emerging in educational settings as well. There are plenty of companies such as zSpace, Alchemy VR and Immersive VR Education that exclusively focus on VR-based instruction in schools, providing not only the hardware, but also educational curricula, content and teacher trainings. Various studies have already been conducted and many conference presentations are held to attest to the great success of VR tech in hundreds of classrooms in the U.S. and Europe.
A lot of applications target hard sciences such as biology, anatomy, geology and astronomy, visualising complicated processes or giving students a chance to interact with fauna and flora. The impressive World of Comenius project, for instance, is a biology lesson in which pupils are shown things in a way which was never possible before. Using an Oculus Rift in combination with a motion controller which detects the user’s hands and fingers, students can play around with atoms and swim inside cells, creating a unique and unforgettable learning experience.
A 2015 article from Factor Tech on VR and education pointed that VR could be the next tech tool – after PCs, mobile phones and tablets - to promote access to education in developing countries, arguing that VR overcomes the obstacle of having to be physically present in a classroom (which is difficult for people located remotely) and, if implemented properly, could be a more cost-effective way of learning. Furthermore, VR platforms such as AltspaceVR and LectureVR are established, which opens up possibilities to create avatars and have “multi-player” sessions. Using these platforms it could, for example, be possible to bring together thousands of students to be guided around or educated by a renowned professor, artist or expert. Moreover, these platforms might act as a bridge between cultures. Given that the required technology is available, young people from all over the world could go on a virtual trip together, not only learning from the simulated reality, but from each other as well.
Future Outlook for Virtual Reality in the Humanitarian Sphere
As mentioned before, many people in the field look favourably upon VR’s future. Tech advisory/analyst firms predict huge rises in the VR market value and consumer spending increases to 5.1 billion USD in 2016. Meanwhile, tech companies such as Facebook, Google and Samsung keep on investing in the technology.
One of the great advantages of VR is that it is relatively cheap. Consumers still need to pay 600 USD for an Oculus Rift headset and operating these headsets also requires a high-end computer that can cost more than 1000 USD, but there are already VR devices which are as cheap 15 USD, such as the Google Cardboard headset, in which you need to insert your smartphone. When we go beyond individual use, however, we see that VR might emerge as a cheap competitor for sophisticated equipment that is currently in use in research centres, universities, hospitals and more. Computer scientist at the University of Barcelona Mel Slater claims that some VR headsets are already comparable to high-end devices that cost tens of thousands of dollars.
Nonetheless, there is still a lot of debate about the downsides of VR. The Wall Street Journal recently warned of health risks such as nausea, disorientation, eyestrain and headaches, recommending to not drive, ride a bike or operate machinery when feeling odd after a VR session. Furthermore, there is the question about mental health. VR often involves shutting yourself off from the world around you. Many already struggle with focussing on friends and family, because of smartphones or tablet screens. Some see VR as a next level of physical isolation. Chris Milk, one of the makers of Clouds over Sidra, pointed out that VR is more than a medium; it is to some degree an alternative level of human consciousness. Although Milk did not intend to scare, there are people within the field such as Rony Abovitz, CEO from the Augmented Reality firm Magic Leap, who warned against temporary and/or permanent neurological deficits after using Oculus Rift. Even though Rony Abovitz is one of Oculus’ corporate rivals, his criticism has not been cast aside as slander. Instead, researchers keep studying how the brain reacts to virtual reality, which is not completely clear yet.
Some people have also uttered their concern about how it might change a person when a VR violent video game becomes too realistic and starts to make participants feel unsafe. Similarly, questions have been raised about how ethical it is to “drop” people into realistic war zones and disaster areas (even if it is “only” virtual), in order to boost donations and involvement. These are important matters in need of external exploration, but not everyone is on the same page about whether or not the end justifies the means.
As promising as the numbers are, VR still has to tackle some points of critique. Nonetheless, it has proven to be extremely useful and facilitates a wide range of applications in various fields of work. However damaging VR is or is not, it does not look like tech companies are going to stop investing in the development of the technology. The debate and research about potential dangers should persist. If one day VR does become a part of daily life for billions of people, hopefully it is used responsibly.