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Research & Design Strategy

Virtual empathy

July 15, 2019

A few months back, I wrote a short blog post about the power of VR and using it within the design process.

It has a lot of advantages: There’s an almost-instant sense of scale and context with minimal investment. We’ve been using VR more and its value both internally and to our clients continues to increase. During this same period of time, the hardware has improved. Moore’s Law has found its way to VR, finally.

I’m the new owner of an Oculus Quest. Without diving into a full-on product review, I’ll keep it short and say that my first non-tethered, six-degrees-of-freedom experience has been incredible thus far. (six degrees meaning I can walk and look around the virtual space). Whether or not the Quest succeeds long term is inconsequential – it has already paved the road for a future of inexpensive, easily accessible VR content.

And already there is a lot of free content available – some good, some bad, and some that is amazing. And just like YouTube, it’s easy to go down rabbit holes, even in VR. This time the rabbit hole led me to a discovery, something I did not learn earlier about VR: that it’s an even more powerful tool than I had previously thought.

Before we get into what that discovery is, let’s take a trip back to Alaska – 1989, Prince William Sound. If you are old enough to remember the Exxon Valdez oil spill then you also remember the news footage: Helicopter views of a ship run adrift with an oil slick that went on for miles, and a once-pristine shoreline glazed over with a thick black ooze, birds and seals covered in it. Events like this have happened again and again over the years, and unless we live nearby, we only see them on a 2D screen, be it a television or our phone’s newsfeed. If you’re not there, you don’t really care. We may feel a moment of sadness and sympathy when we see this sort of thing, but we move on quickly -- we have our own lives to deal with.

Just over 30 years after the Exxon Valdez, I am watching a short CBC documentary called Impossible to Contain.

It’s on the Quest, and it’s filmed in 360 degrees. Narrator Zoe Hopkins tells the story of her native community grappling with a 110,000-liter diesel spill that happened just outside Bella Bella, British Columbia in October 2016.

Until I came across this documentary on the Quest, I never heard of the spill. Or the people of Bella Bella. Or Bella Bella, for that matter.

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