Mark Zuckerberg came under fire this week following a Facebook Live event where the company chief took a virtual tour through a hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. A cartoonized Zuck was joined by Facebook's head of social virtual reality Rachel Franklin in a demo of how Facebook Spaces can teleport us to major world events. As the two stood in front of the devastation, a shared high five felt tone deaf at best, exploitative at worst. Zuckerberg later apologized: "My goal here was to show how VR can raise awareness and help us see what's happening in different parts of the world."
Of course, neither Zuckerberg nor Franklin meant any harm from this (Facebook was also donating to help victims of the disaster), but there's no denying it could have been executed better. It also underlined how current limits to VR technology blunt it as a tool for empathy, and in this case, appeared to some people as even heartless.
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"We fail fast," Paula Cueno, who launched Oculus's VR for Good initiative, told me when I asked her about the Puerto Rico presentation. "Mark's not afraid to make mistakes". At Oculus Connect, Cueno held a talk on the VR for Good program, which aims to inspire and bring about social change through the power of immersive virtual reality.
It's the most important thing for Zuckerberg right now
Earlier this year, Oculus-produced VR movie Step to the Line, a piece on life during and after prison, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. Not only did it delve into the lives of the inmates, it took advantage of the medium to give viewers a sense of what it's like to be inside a prison cell.
Using VR as an empathy machine is something we've seen plenty outside of Oculus too. How it's giving documentary makers new ways to impact the viewer. How it's being used to make climate change and other big issues resonate. How it's even teaching people about sexual consent.
But at the same time, many people would argue that empathy isn't so easily conveyed. Sticking on a headset and looking through the eyes of a refugee might offer a small window of insight into their life, but it's devoid of real emotional context. And it's difficult to extend that experience into VR in a very meaningful way without much bigger advances in the technology.
And that means sometimes it will probably go wrong, as we saw this week. "You know, it feels like we're really here in Puerto Rico," said Zuck during the broadcast. Maybe he honestly did feel it, but to the viewer these cartoon characters could not have been further away. It highlighted a disconnect that Zuckerberg underlined in his apology: "That sense of empathy doesn't extend well to people watching you as a virtual character on a 2D screen. That's something we'll need to work on over time".
For things like disaster tourism in particular, we must be considerate in the way VR is used. During her talk at Oculus Connect Cueno said that work was being done to create a virtual reality version of Anne Frank's house, and I'm sure I wasn't the only one to raise an eyebrow.
But done right, VR can be a tool for good, and it's not all about empathy. Cueno also gave examples of how VR is being used in hospitals to manage patient pain and for physical recovery (she says The Climb is a favorite pick). It's also put a bunch of Rifts in libraries around California. "We're finding in some cases they're using VR in community rooms to get folks out of their beds, out of their hospital rooms, to engage with each other and to create community."
It's also a tool for inspiration, as seen in another short experience Oculus worked on where people could step into the shoes of pioneering computer programmer Grace Hopper.
"It's the most important thing for Zuckerberg now," Cueno told me. "He's changed the mission for the company." As VR gets better, it will be a more powerful tool for empathy, inspiration and self-improvement, but until then it's important that those wielding this tool understand its limitations.