Is VR’s Greatest Value Actually to Help us Rediscover our Humanity?

Jared Myers

Stock photo of tornado devastation.

This week, our guest speaker, Donna Davis, delivered a stirring talk on the implications of AR/VR for people all over the world.  I will attest that I have not tried a virtual reality headset since I tried my rich neighbor’s Virtual Boy in the mid-1990s.  This failed Nintendo device, with its 1980s Tron-style red, green, and blue line graphics is a far cry from the depth of experience now. 

As Donna referenced The Sims, I recalled my teenage memories of putting temperamental Sims characters into door-less rooms until they died.   I thought I knew her upcoming points: some lonely people (unlike me) really enjoy doing positive things with their avatars online. Boring.  Not for me.

I was unprepared, however, for Donna to choke up at the mere mention of another player’s name in Second Life. Fran, was a young woman of 90-some years, trapped in a body with Parkinson’s disease. Her son created an avatar in a beautiful ballroom gown so that he could dance with her from his home in another state each night.  Fran’s death this past year was terribly upsetting to Donna even still. While Second Life players not be like me in their entertainment choices, they are exactly like all of us in their humanity.

As an MBA Candidate, I have taken several classes in management and leadership.  We have covered many topics: emotional intelligence, thought frameworks, and human traits. Above all, from personal observations and classroom lessons, empathy seems to be the most important hallmark of great leaders.

The newly immersive nature of modern VR/AR platforms is emerging, too, as a clear money maker, as the recent Marshmello concert on Fortnight shows.  If 10 million people can be drawn in to a virtual concert and feel like it was worthwhile, how else could we use these platforms?

One person with an idea is Bonnie Nixon.  I met Bonnie this summer in an alpine meadow covered in wildflowers in Lassen National Park. As we rested in the lush environs, we shared our thoughts on the beauty around us. As one topic led to another, I learned that Bonnie is very well-known in the world of corporate sustainability.  She told me about her plans: leveraging AR/VR to take people to the places effected by global climate change, deforestation, and natural disaster.  If she could virtually take people to the unbelievable disasters she has seen first-hand, she thinks she could win their hearts toward positive impact. 

If I could virtually relive this trail beer and conversation with Bonnie in this meadow , I would.

This week, as the mostly deadly tornado in years ripped through Alabama with “unbelievable devastation”, I wondered how we might take these examples from Donna and Bonnie to make these realities more believable for those of us sitting in the comfort and safety of a classroom in Eugene. 

VR/AR holds so much promise for learning, experiencing the superhuman, or living out a fantasy.  The implications for the military are clear to the Microsoft engineers who are protesting work on a military augmented reality platform.  Perhaps the best way to use these technologies in these uncivil times is actually to make our hardened, cynical hearts a little more human and vulnerable.

Imagine using the technology to put congresspeople in the shoes of migrants seeking asylum on the southwest border, or show a pol shouting “SOCIALISM!” what it’s like to try to evade gunfire from your own government as you try to get to food in Venezuela.  My for VR/AR may have shifted since the last time I played The Sims, but just like Bob Dylan sang, “I was so much older then/I’m younger than that now.”

For more thoughts and reactions from class this quarter, follow me on Twitter @JaredPMyers

This Article Has 8 Comments
  1. Zhiheng Li says:

    Hi Jared,
    I’m very impressed by your idea. I have to say that the first time I’ve knowing XR technology is only about entertainments. I do not think how can XR techs can change our society on existing social problems. I think you and your friend, Bonnie’s idea is great. People should understand what our living condition had become in a more straightforward way, and do something to protect the environment. I hope we human we discover some way using XR methods to improve our society.

  2. Eva Pozarycki says:

    This is a great concept to write on, Jared. During Donna’s presentation, I also thought about more good we can do with VR in terms of the planet in addition to people. To show what the planet might look like in a decade through VR may bring this pressing issue to more people.

  3. Samuel Cochran says:

    In typical Jared Myers fashion, this post was very entertaining. I commend you for that, kudos. I agree that empathy is a critical attribute of a good leader. If we are empathetic, we are more likely to act selflessly, and consistent selflessness is the trademark of a good leader. Interesting take on using VR to visit sites affected by climate change and natural disasters. I believe that VR could certainly be applied in this way.

  4. Jill Niedermeyer says:

    Jared — I’m so disappointed I missed this lecture (I was super sick last week), but I’m glad I got to catch up a little with your post! I’m working in the tech industry after graduation and I can’t wait to see how emerging technologies like AR and VR develop in the next ten years. I love what you mentioned about using this tech for good. I wonder how far out that will be as creators are still figuring out exactly how the tech even works.

  5. Tom Bridger says:

    Thanks for the post Jared. I too was a little shocked to hear about the popularity and emotional connections being formed on Second Life. I’m interested to see how VR/AR proliferates into different industries/mediums such as the army, and social movements like you mentioned. I really hope that XR can bring newfound happiness to those with disabilities and/or limitations, and agree that XR can really be a boundless endeavor.

  6. David says:

    Thanks for posting Jared. What a strange time to be alive. It is interesting to see what direction VR/AR/ XR will take it and how it will penetrate into products, social life, and every day living. There is a lot of good that can happen or at least a lot of enjoyment that can happen.

  7. Kaisa Lightfoot says:

    Jared, I loved this take on empathy. It’s true! Humanity is relational. For example, when people hear that hundreds of people died in a disaster, it matters differently than when they hear that a single person–a 37 year old mother of three died in a disaster. The ability to empathize with the humanity of a single story generally weighs heavier on the hearts of us weird humans. Using VR to make people see 1 on 1 the devastation of climate change can make it real for people in a way that imagining it so abstractly may not. Thanks!

  8. Brian Gaudette says:

    Love the thoughtful dichotomy Jarred. Always important to look at the nuances of issues. It’s often said that certain technologies are tools and are not inherently good or bad. They can be powerful tools for improving our social fabric and humanity or…..create a wedge of distance from the people closest to us and isolation.

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