CHIVR — Altering Reality for Social Impact

Nov 10, 2017   |   Soren Spicknall, MSFT Chicago Civic Tech Fellow

On October 25, the Microsoft Innovation & Policy Center Chicago hosted an official convening of CHIVR, the largest virtual reality community in the Midwest. Titled “Virtual + Augmented Reality for Social Impact”, the gathering focused on leveraging virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (VR/AR/MR) technologies for the good of the public. As a Microsoft Civic Technology Fellow strategizing for the transformative potential of virtual worlds, I was invited to sit on CHIVR’s panel for the night along with five others with a professional interest in VR for good:

Soren Spicknall speaks at CHIVR. Photo: Knowlton Haaland of Robo Aerial.

As with many VR/AR/MR meetups (and, in fact, the discipline as a whole), CHIVR is strongly rooted in game development, a traditionally creative software community. However, over the last year, the creators of the event have actively pursued topics ranging from manufacturing to marketing, assembling a differing panel and crowd at each of their meetups. October’s broad social impact theme was a perfect fit for activists, civic technologists, and others with an interest in using VR/AR/MR for altruistic purposes.

Each panelist at the event brought with them a unique background, and a unique take on what’s next for socially and civically impactful VR work. White, for instance, discussed his team’s creation of immersive music videos and other media with built-in sociopolitical messages. Dr. Johnson spent time outlining advances being made in medical research around augmented reality, including projects being put together by the Electronic Visualization Laboratory.

CHIVR Panelists. Photo: Knowlton Haaland of Robo Aerial.

With Vanyukhina moderating the conversation, all six of us found commonalities in our work and our viewpoints, and chief among those commonalities was the word “empathy”. We agreed that much of the potential power of VR/AR/MR comes from the ability of three-dimensional immersion to make us react more deeply to our surroundings than traditional, two-dimensional media. Game developers have known this for years, building VR experiences that delight or even scare a player. But when considering more than just players and games, the doors open up for us to be able to connect people to the experiences of others in underprivileged city neighborhoods, in acts of politically-motivated violence, and even in the functions of government.

While the socially transformative potential of VR/MR/AR technologies is clear, that potential should not be taken as guaranteed or automatic. Beyond the CHIVR panel, conversation turned to pitfalls and limitations, including major issues with equitable access to VR and the ethics of virtual experiences that are designed to invoke base primal reactions. Panelists met with audience members directly to talk about what comes next, and how the active work of the CHIVR community can help ensure that the future of VR/AR/MR will improve the lives of many, not just the privileged group who have access to those technologies today.

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