Stepping into the Frame: Communicating Experiences with Virtual Reality

By Sky Chadde | Investigate Midwest

When Chris Ball was in college, he signed up to experience a virtual reality headset. The zombies didn’t make the biggest impression; instead, it was an experience named “The Blue.” 

The perspective was from someone at the bottom of the ocean looking up at a whale, said Ball, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Then, he felt something — the experience elicited an emotional response — which he wasn’t expecting.

Since then, he has conducted studies to see if others reacted similarly. Ball has found that people who experienced “The Blue,” and other virtual reality programs focused on nature, became more environmentally conscious. That’s because people don’t encounter whales or polar bears in their everyday lives, he said, but virtual reality allows them to see nature, even unnaturally, up close.

Ball said virtual reality could be used to elicit pro-social attitudes, such as thinking more about the environment. Society has “public service announcements,” but what if it had “public service experiences”? Having certain experiences could change people’s minds in a positive, pro-social way. 

The flip side to that, Ball said, is that a technology as potentially persuasive as virtual reality could be used in a negative way. “There’s a lot of ethical groundwork we need to figure out going forward,” he said.

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