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How virtual reality is being used to tackle prejudice

The Machine To Be Another
Source: The Machine to Be Another

An employer refuses to hire a disabled person. A policeman pulls over a Hispanic man for no reason. A white woman changes sidewalks when she sees a black man walking behind her.

While scenarios like this are nothing new, one small group of technologists and researchers are working to use virtual reality to create a new way of helping people better understand each other.

A collective called Be Another Lab is using virtual reality to help people swap bodies with someone else so that they can better understand the other's perspective. Both parties wear a VR headset and then can experience what it's like to be in that person's body. The aim is to help create empathy for one another, said Daanish Masood, a member of the collective and a United Nation's advisor.

"I think fixing prejudice is a really big goal, who can fix prejudice? But maybe we can create empathy and maybe we can increase the level of intimacy that people feel with these issues for these parts of different communities," Masood said. "If you see yourself in the body as someone with a disability, if you see yourself as someone in a wheelchair, how does that complexify how you look at disability issues? Does that change behavior in any way? That is the question."

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The collective, which was founded about three years ago, recently demoed its project called "The Machine to be Another" technology at Storyscapes, the interactive exhibit at the Tribeca Film Festival. The group partnered with a diverse group of individuals to help tell their story. Attendees could experience what it was like to inhabit the body of that person by interacting with artifacts from their life in VR. Attendees could also use the technology to swap bodies with someone else they were with.

"We want to bring stories and bodies that frankly we don't see very much of in these types of contexts. We don't hear enough stories coming from those corners of our society," Masood said.

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In 2013, scientists at the University of Barcelona found that racial bias was reduced when immersing participants in a different race by using virtual reality. Work done at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University has also shown how virtual reality can be used to "walk a mile in someone else's shoes."

The collective's work was inspired by these studies and other researcher's work in the field, Masood said.

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The collective is made up of a team of six males located around the world including Spain, Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. While it is currently self-funded, the group is looking for new funding opportunities, including grants and partnerships with universities and other organizations. But the endgame isn't about becoming profitable, Masood said. It's about figuring out new ways to use this technology to better understand each other, he said.

"There are so many biases. From law enforcement and young black men to our understanding of Native American communities in this country and how marginalized they feel. These are big issues," Masood said.

"Our hope is that by continuing down this path, maybe we will come across some applications for this type of technology that could potentially help increase understanding around these issues."