TechMunch: Fighting racial discrimination with the help of VR

Last year, my colleague Stephanie predicted what 2016 held in store for tech. Unsurprisingly, the rise of virtual reality (VR) in the entertainment industry was high on the list, from the way we watch concerts and sports games to the way we consume social media. Having started the year appealing to hardcore gamers and early adopters, VR’s ambition of mass appeal is looking closer to coming to fruition. The advent of the smartphone-powered VR experience has certainly been a contributing factor, with Samsung Gear headsets outstripping Oculus Rift sales in 2016 by 1.4 million sales. Indeed, “taking the red pill” is now easier than ever, all you need is a fairly recent smartphone and a bog-standard £10 headset ordered on Amazon.

Most interestingly, 2016 has shown some incredibly exciting new applications for VR. One of them is the fight against racial discrimination. Many of the world’s leading scientists agree that most people have some form of ingrained racial bias, one that is constructed over long periods of time, often due to their environment and the society in which they live. Apparent in Britain for example, police recorded a 41% increase in hate crimes in the month following the Brexit campaign, which the Equality and Human Rights Commission condemned with having “legitimised hate”.

Reversing the effects of such events may seem impossible; but a research team led by Prof Mel Slater at the University of Barcelona claim they have found a way to do just that. Ingrained racial bias is reduced when participants are immersed in a virtual body of a person of a different race. Subconscious prejudices and stereotyping can be picked up on by an Implicit Association Test and by performing this test on participants before and after their virtual experience, the team discovered that bias decreased.

The verdict is still out on how effective these methods are in the long term; but they are already being used by some as a more effective means of reducing discrimination in the workplace. The National Football League (NFL) is determining how to apply the technology in training, putting staff and players in the body of a black woman whilst being harassed by a white male for instance. One organisation has already taken the idea to greater heights.

UNICEF has used the technology to create immersive films plunging the viewer into the touching daily struggles of the world’s most vulnerable children. Entitled UNICEF 360º, two VR films which are available for free on the app store, one following a child’s search for clean water in Uganda and the other providing a glimpse into the life of a Syrian refugee. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon insisted that the film be screened at the main reception of the Humanitarian Pledging Conference for Syria and while the conference was projected to raise $2.3 billion, it wound up generating a mind-boggling $3.8 billion.

By replacing the real world with interactive VR scenes, our brains come close to truly believing what they are seeing. According to Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, the effect of such realism could be lasting behavioral change. The filmmaker behind the UNICEF 360º project, Chris Milk, has lauded the technology as something that “has the potential to change the world”.

Harnessing this immersion, or “presence”, means we can escape our reality and be transported to mountain tops, through space and into heart-pounding storylines. Describing it as an “empathy generating machine”, Professor Slater offers a radically different opportunity, that of experiencing the reality of those less fortunate than ourselves. More importantly, when shown to the right people, it could change minds and inform geopolitical decisions.

Hopefully some headsets made their way under our world leaders’ Christmas trees this year.

Benjy Hollis, Intern, Technology