Monday, June 12, 2017

21st Century Liberation – Virtual Reality

My Avatar. I always wanted to come back in my next life as a strong, black woman. 

A caveat to this article, I’ve been working in augmented reality, certainly tried some virtual reality, but haven’t personally taken the plunge into purchasing a VR headset, so much my information is hearsay albeit from reliable sources.

Last week, I had the great opportunity to attend 2 events discussing AR/VR and what some are calling XR (any kind of altered reality). In some ways, XR has been around for a long time (although not the first example, anyone who has used a ViewMaster can attest to this), yet for a mainstream technology, it’s just in its infancy. I will be using XR to refer to all AR/VR/MR in this article.

The topics varied widely from how and when users are engaging with XR, to how XR allows people to be something other than the physical self we are trapped in every day. We discussed the technology and projects people are experimenting with to find the most compelling use cases.

For me, the topics that resonated were about people – how does this change how we learn, how we empathize, how we interact and how we think about self and other? Today I want to talk about the last example, self and other. Many virtual realities, and some augmented realities, allow you to create an avatar, a version of yourself that exists only in this online world. I have never personally given thought to these “personas” and who and what they represent.

The overarching sentiment was that virtual reality lets you be anything or anyone you want. For many people, this is an absolutely liberating experience. The exception to this rule – that I’m aware of – is  Facebook spaces which apparently doesn’t allow for creating a personal avatar who is overweight, despite the multitude of other options for customization.

Back to the liberating experiences; Portland artist Stephanie Mendoza talked about the ability to create a creature who can do and be whatever you want in Anyland. She told the story of a transgender individual who had been bullied. Stephanie showed this (reluctant) individual how to create an avatar on Anyland. After creating an anonymous avatar that represented her true self, the individual felt empowered, emboldened and her new way of being in this virtual world carried over to a new way of being in the real world. There, she also felt empowered and emboldened.

Donna Z. Davis, Director of the Strategic Communication program at the U of O, talked about her decade plus of research in Second Life. (yes, it still exists) working with people who are often house, room or bed bound. She spoke of a 90 year old woman with Parkinson’s who gets to be her younger, vibrant self while in Second Life. Although it’s difficult to leave her home, she meets many people through this virtual portal, reducing the feelings of isolation. In this virtual world, communication is leveled for deaf people who can easily have conversations via text since typing is a common communication tool. With additional examples of a blind person who created a custom virtual, sound-driven environment and a dwarf who created a cute, approachable alligator that people loved which was different than her experience being teased as a little person in the big world. It became clear that VR allows people to not just have a Second Life, but an entirely secondary persona.

It’s really powerful to be able to create an avatar, a representation of that which represents the best in us, or the hidden part of us, or maybe a characteristic we didn’t even know we had until the virtual anonymity allowed us to be what and who ever we wanted. People should be able to create their online presence to fully represent themselves if desired, as fat, skinny, tall or short and, they should be able to create a representation that is their best “self” be it younger, skinnier, furry or feathered, human or other-worldly. In this way, some people are empowered by the fact that they are in the skin that feels right to them.

There is, of course, a flip-side; a very dark flip-side where anonymity allows for bullying, harassment and discrimination. I will leave that for the next article. For now, we will focus on the positive, the ways in which this new technology can give us wings (literal and figurative), help us find our voice, our community and be empowered to be our best selves.