VR is changing the IRL world

Imagine if you could really live a day in someone else’s shoes. How would it change your perspective on life? Now, imagine those shoes belong to a displaced person living in a refugee camp – you can walk around their house, have a meal with their family, watch a game of football. How deeply would that affect how you relate to the refugee crisis? What social impact could that have on the world?

These are all questions virtual reality (VR) technologies are soon hoping to have answers for.

No longer just the stuff of science fiction fantasy, or thought of as a new-wave of gaming technology, there’s now a growing body of research on how VR can have a positive impact for individuals, and society at large.

So, what exactly is virtual reality technology?

Person with a beard wearing a Virtual Reality headset

VR can mean different things to different people. For this story, we talk about two different types of VR: 360 degree, and full-immersive interactive. Both are a digital technology that use headsets and headphones to produce images and sounds that replicate real or imaginary environments. Typically, you’re able to move around and explore these artificial worlds, just like you would in the real world, and with full-immersive interactive VR you can even engage with the environment you see.

And now, many companies in Australia and overseas are starting to recognise the numerous opportunities for VR in the health, not-for-profit and social justice sectors.

In Australia, Phoria have been taking strides in the health sector, experimenting with VR in youth oncology wards.

clean hospital room, ready for a patient
Using technology created for commercial property, Phoria had the
opportunity to share their VR experience with a young cancer patient isolated in hospital. The result? The young patient’s vitals lifted and she responded better to treatment.

They are now doing more trials in the health sector, offering animal-based VR experiences, filmed at the Melbourne Zoo, to 80 children at a Melbourne hospital, with more plans to expand to other areas of healthcare.

VR is often more cost effective for hospitals, and gives patients greater access to traditional therapeutic methods like animals, music and green space therapy.

A giant panda lying on a log
Another Australian company, Start VR, collaborated with Samsung Australia and Chris O’Brien Lifehouse hospital to run a similar trial with positive results.

“Allowing patients to escape the experience of chemotherapy gives them a bit of space to forget what’s going on. In settings such as before surgery, patients are even more anxious. This gives them a distraction and allows them to keep their spirits up.” said Michael Marthick, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse hospital’s Complementary Therapy Director.

And then there’s VR which combines neuroscience and design to help people control their mental state and well-being. Liminal VR plan to release their product for emotional well-being in private alpha stage by mid-May.

So what can we hope to see coming in terms of VR for not-for-profits and social impact?

Ann Nolan spent many years working in psychology and community development before she co-founded Snobal in 2014, a Melbourne-based VR company.

Snobal creates and produces VR tools for businesses and government. These tools can assist organisations in showcasing how new designs can fit into existing landscapes. This could look like the redevelopment of a major road intersection, or a new commercial property. They are also hoping to use these same tools to assist not-for-profits in the near future.

Due to resourcing issues at many not-for-profits the uptake is lagging behind other sectors, according to Nolan, but that’s not to say that it wouldn’t be highly effective. It just takes time for new technologies to catch on; she likened the current VR landscape to social media 10 years ago.

A recent study undertaken in the US measured different levels of empathy that participants felt on the issue of homelessness after being given one of four types of stimulus: a sheet of statistics; a text based story about a person’s journey to homelessness; a desktop simulation of that same story; or a first person perspective of that story via VR.

A picture of the human brain connected to a circuit board on a microchip
Not surprisingly, the participants who experienced the story through VR on average measured higher levels of empathy.

“It was a very immersive experience … I felt helpless and despaired when I was living in a car. I really did not know how to organise it, and everything was crumpled,” said one of the study’s participants who experienced the VR stimuli.

A couple of years back, in 2015, the United Nations released a film shot in 360 VR called ‘Clouds over Sidra’. Filmed in the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan, home to over 80,000 Syrians fleeing war and violence, it follows a young girl living in a refugee camp while she goes to school and shares a meal with her family at home.

“By leveraging breakthrough technologies such as virtual reality, we can create solidarity with those who are normally excluded and overlooked, amplifying their voices and allowing them to explain their realities in their own words,” writes Mitchell Toomey, Director of the UN campaign.

Imagine a world where not-for-profits can easily ‘fly’ regular donors into remote areas to see the direct impact their money is having. Imagine a world where we can have even greater empathy for people in situations far removed and vastly different from ours. Imagine a world where patients stuck in hospital beds are able to regularly experience a world outside of the walls.

It’s the world we might see in the not-too-distant future.

Written by
Laura Cordero